The dead man had been killed by a shot from a revolver. So what was the prussic acid doing there?

The Murdered Banker, by Augusto De Angelis and translated by Jill Foulston

Piazza San Fedele was a bituminous lake of fog penetrated only by the rosy haloes of arched street lamps.

So far there seem to be two very distinct strands to the Pushkin Vertigo imprint. On the one hand there are intense psychological thrillers like Vertigo and She Who Was No More. On the other are highly traditional cosy crime/whodunnit novels like The Murdered Banker, only written by European authors less well-known to an English-speaking audience.

I’m not a huge fan of whodunnits in English so I’m probably not the best audience for them in translation. Despite that I was tempted to try a De Angelis and quite frankly I got the titles mixed up and forgot this was the one that the ever-reliable Guy Savage didn’t particularly rate. Oh well.


Inspector De Vincenzi is relaxing on a foggy night at his Milanese police station with a pile of books kept carefully out of the public’s view. He’s reading Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent and has Plato’s Eros and the Epistles of St Paul standing by in a drawer. Already we’ve established the kind of man he is: an intellectual, but not one indifferent to the impression he presents to those seeking his help.

Unexpectedly, his old friend Aurigi walks in claiming to have spent the past few hours wandering the streets in the freezing fog. Shortly after comes a call: a dead body has been found in Aurigi’s apartment. De Vincenzi is convinced that his old friend couldn’t be a murderer, but he has no alibi and when it turns out that the dead man is a banker to whom Aurigi owed a substantial debt that he couldn’t pay the case starts to look open and shut regardless of De Vincenzi’s doubts.

The problem is that while the police have a corpse, a motive and a suspect with no alibi there are facts at the scene that don’t add up. Why was a full bottle of prussic acid left at the scene given the victim was shot? Why would Aurigi commit the crime in his own apartment and leave himself without alibi? Why is the clock running one hour fast?

The oddest thing with The Murdered Banker is that early on De Vincenzi and another officer comment on how horrifically mysterious and inexplicable it all is, as later do De Vincenzi and Aurigi:

“You can’t trust appearances,” Maccari said, looking at him and shaking his head. “I have a feeling there’s something behind this that’s escaping us at the moment. Something horrible and unnatural. Too awful to contemplate.”

“I’m afraid—do you understand? I’m frightened of knowing what happened in here!

Both men stood looking beyond the door of the room to the door of the apartment. It was opening. From that moment on, the door took on the function of Destiny, determining the course of events each time it swung open like a terrible Nemesis.

I could quote more on those lines. It’s all terribly dramatic, but it quickly turns out that while the facts are complex and need a fair bit of investigation to untwine there’s nothing horrible or unnatural here nor ever any hint (other than the characters’ own statements) that there might be. To add to a slight sense of melodrama there’s also a bit of the stage-play to it all, with almost all the action taking place in Aurigi’s apartment with the characters wandering on and off-stage but returning each time to the same few rooms.

De Vincenzi soon determines that this is a murder with too many clues and, after a while, too many suspects (and more than one doubtful confession). He resignedly observes:

if one dismisses the idea of premeditation in this crime, it couldn’t have happened. And if one allows for it, it couldn’t have been carried out the way it appears to have been.”

It’s mysterious, but at the end of the day it’s still a man shot in a front room and several people who might be guilty (each for fairly understandable reasons). De Vincenzi oversells the horror in a book that (rightly) contains nothing horrific.

It’s all very clearly inspired by Agatha Christie, acknowledgedly so since one character quite directly says to De Vincenzi  “Oh, you have only to get the little grey cells of your brain working!” which is about as clear a shout-out as every you might hope for.

The character that quote comes from is the sadly underused Harrington – a flashy local PI brought in to shadow De Vincenzi’s investigation who adopts an English name for professional purposes. Harrington doesn’t really do much and the story would be much the same without him, which is a bit of a shame since to be honest I’d be more interested in following the adventures of a rather spivvy private investigator than yet another unusually insightful police inspector.

As always with this kind of novel there are some apparent coincidences that turn out to be anything but, and some others that really are coincidences. Arguably it’s a bit arbitrary that so much happens on the same night, but then the novel is about a case that’s tough to crack and if part of the reason its tough is a chance muddying of the investigative waters that’s fair enough. Besides, as De Vincenzi rightly observes: “wasn’t everything about real life and reality a bit arbitrary?”

In the end this is a rather slight affair which doesn’t quite fulfil the dramatic expectations it sets up early on. It’s fun and I may still read The Hotel of the Three Roses (great title if nothing else), but it shows that it’s De Angelis’ first try and I think readers who aren’t completists could happily skip on to some of his hopefully more polished later outings.

Other reviews

Guy Savage’s review, which I really should have read afresh before buying this since I entirely agree with it, is here. If you know any others please do let me know.


Filed under Crime, De Angelis, Augusto, Italian fiction, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo

10 responses to “The dead man had been killed by a shot from a revolver. So what was the prussic acid doing there?

  1. It does sound very Agatha Christie, and (as you say) rather suited to the stage. Nevertheless, I am quite looking forward to reading it – I actually have an e-copy which I must have bought as part of a kindle deal. Maybe I’l give it a whirl at the end of #ReadingRhys as it sounds like it might work as a palate cleanser.

  2. There is a place for this sort of whodunit. I call it mid to late teens! It sounds like the sorry of thing I gulped down when I was that age! Inoffensive and not overly complex. Great review.

  3. Oh I think you can enjoy a good whodunit at any age. I like the sound of a misty Milan.

  4. Thanks for the mention. Yes there are appear to be two strands to Vertigo. I was a bit surprised by this after the first few, very strong titles. If you didn’t care for this, you’ll probably feel about the same if you read The Hotel of the Three Roses–I liked that one a bit more since it ties in w/colonialism and the inspector gets a forewarning of something ‘horrible’ through an anonymous letter. The hotel, as it turns out, is a creepy place, and the letter writer was right about that, at least.

  5. Like Jacqui, I quite like whodunnits as a change of pace between more ‘intense’ books so I might enjoy this. I’ve never felt any embarrassment about this since I visited Hugh MacDiarmid’s cottage (famous Scottish poet and ferocious intellectual) which was filled with shelf upon shelf of green Penguins!

  6. Is there a way to determine which Puskin title falls into which of those two categories you mention? I see their titles come up frequently as e book special offers but I’m more interested in the psychological thrillers than the cosy ones. Is there a difference in the covers or is it simply a case of reading the blurb?

  7. Jacqui, happy not to have put you off it and it’s not like I’m saying it’s bad. It’s flawed but it’s a first novel. It would certainly work as a light palate cleanser.

    Sarah, Alastair, I agree you can enjoy a good whodunnit/whodunit at any age (what governs the number of Ns in that word? one and two both seem widely used). At the same time, I read Christie as a teenager like Sarah and it is a very good age for them.

    Guy, I’ll probably read Three Roses since I do like hotel settings (as you do as I recall), but my expectations have been firmly set and I note from your review there’s still a tendency to the melodramatic.

    Grant, I don’t think people should be embarrassed about reading for entertainment. What’s wrong with being entertained? The Louise Welsh’s I read based on your reviews aren’t great literature, but they’re bloody entertaining and definitely deserve to be called page-turners. Crafting a solid and interesting plot which propels the reader forward is a real skill.

    Booker, sadly not. You need to read the blurbs. It’s pretty apparent from those though. The Boileau-Narcejacs might be worth your checking out (I’ve reviewed both the ones in the range here) as those are definitely at the psychological end.

  8. The banker was hit but this is a miss for you. Too bad but I guess it wasn’t a long read.

    PS : I see you’re reading Run River. I’m looking forward to reading your review. I loved it.

  9. It had the merit of brevity, which is always appreciated.

    I’ve not started Run River at a great time since I’m a bit tired from work this week, but the prose is crystalline. I’m not far in but I’m pretty sure I’ll love it too.

  10. Pingback: Doing wrong for its own sake made him happy. | Pechorin's Journal

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