The Hotel of the Three Roses, by Augusto de Angelis and translated by Jill Foulston
I recently read De Angelis’ Death of a Banker which I liked but didn’t love. It was a first novel, which showed in its over-evident debt to Agatha Christie and a tendency to portentousness in the first half.
Being perfectly honest, if it had been an English novel of similar period I probably wouldn’t have read more. I don’t follow the excellent British Crime Library series after all, many of which are frankly better than the first De Angelis. 1930s Milan is sufficiently unusual to me, and the Pushkin brand sufficiently influential, that I tried his next anyway.
As with Death of a Banker, the novel opens in fog:
The rain was coming down in long threads that looked silvery in the glare of the headlamps. A fog, diffuse and smoky, needled the face. An unbroken line of umbrellas bobbed along the pavements. Motor cars in the middle of the road, a few carriages, trams full. At six in the afternoon, Milan was thick with darkness in these first days of December.
It worked in the first book and De Angelis saw no reason to change it for the second (a statement that’s true of several of the book’s elements). However, in terms of character chronology Three Roses is actually set before Banker, and is Inspector De Vincenzi’s first major case.
Banker had a figure moving through the fog, Roses has three of them. They create that initial sinister note that De Angelis is so fond of:
Their profiles were beaked, their eyes bright and alert, and with those chins and noses they seemed to be cleaving the crowd and the heavy mist of fog and rain. How old they were was anyone’s guess. Age had fossilized their bodies, and each was so similar to the others that without the colourful hat ribbons under their chins—mauve, claret, black—a person might have thought he was hallucinating, convinced he was seeing the same woman three times in a row.
The three women are seeking out their brother, Carlo Da Coma. He’s a long-term guest at the Hotel of the Three Roses (I love novels set in hotels with long-stay guests), behind on his bills and borrowing money from the staff. His sisters want to buy one of his few remaining assets from him – an already heavily mortgaged property. The sale would more than clear his debts and he has no use for the place, but he refuses “just to spite them”. He then goes upstairs to his room:
a garret with rooftop views. A small iron bed, a chest of drawers with a mirror, a washbasin standing on a pedestal, an enamel jug, a couple of chairs. But there was a yellow leather trunk and a suitcase of pigskin. And on the walls, three large colour prints by Vernet. Authentic ones which, with their galloping horses and flying jockeys, were alone worth everything else illuminated by the dusty lamp. The trunk, the suitcase and three prints were all Da Como had brought back with him from London. Remains of a shipwreck—his shipwreck. Apart, of course, from the heavily mortgaged Comerio property.
Da Como is a perversely nasty piece of work, but he’s far from the only one. Later that evening as guests eat, play cards, enjoy a drink, the gossipy hunchback Bardi runs into the main room screaming that a man has been hanged upstairs. The body was positioned where only a few people might discover it, Da Como among them. Is someone trying to send a particularly macabre message?
Meanwhile, De Vincenzi is already interested in the hotel having received an anonymous letter warning that a “horrible drama is brewing, one that will blow up if the police don’t intervene in time. A young girl is about to lose her innocence. Several people’s lives are threatened. … the devil is grinning from every corner of that house.”
De Angelis clearly hasn’t lost his fondness for the over-dramatic. De Vincenzi is troubled by the letter and his concerns are swiftly proved justified when the police are called to investigate the hanging. De Vincenzi is “profoundly disturbed. He had a vague presentiment that he was about to experience something dreadful.”
The forebodings aren’t as oversold here as in Banker, but De Angelis does overuse this motif of having characters reflect on how terrible and evil the events about to unfold are. He sets up expectations which he then inevitably struggles to deliver and as devices go it’s a bit hammy. Here the events are more sinister than in Banker but even so it’s a serious crime, not the devil riding out.
What at first looks like a potential suicide quickly becomes something much worse (now I’m at it…) The dead man was posed after being killed:
“He did not die by hanging,” he uttered slowly and softly, and De Vincenzi felt a quick shiver pass beneath his skin. “Someone hung him up after he was dead.”
What unfolds is a complex plot involving an inheritance, an old crime, and many if not most of the guests. There’s an international cast and soon more bodies, and more than one of the guests appear to have brought the same creepy vintage doll with them for no reason De Vincenzi can discover.
There’s a distinctly gothic tone to the proceedings. Bardi, the hunchback, is hairless even to the extent of having no eyelashes and has a face “so smooth, so furrowed with tiny lines at his temples and the corners of his mouth as to give the impression of an almost obscene nudity.”
In case a hairless hunchback isn’t sufficient, other characters of note include: a skeletal Levantine who dresses entirely in black and claims divinatory powers; a youthful gambling addict; a grotesquely fat man named Engel who along with Da Como may have been the target of the displayed corpse and who is the keeper of one of those creepy dolls I mentioned. Nobody’s past bears much examining. It’s distinctly a cabinet of curiosities.
Da Como went to get a tumbler from the sink and filled it with cognac. De Vincenzi watched him drink without stopping him. Even he could have done with a drink. Recounted like that in the deep, raucous voice of a man who looked like an orangutan dressed up as a clown, and in a room with whitewashed walls, by the pink light of a dusty lamp, the story had profoundly depressed him.
Quite. Who can blame him?
Roses is flatly a better book than Banker. It’s over the top, but the claustrophobic setting of the hotel marooned in fog with nobody allowed to leave (in case the murderer disappears) works well. It soon becomes apparent that the murderer isn’t done yet, forcing De Vincenzi to work against the clock interrogating guests who’re desperate for the killer to be caught before they’re next, but not so desperate as to reveal their common knowledge of what’s behind it all.
I wasn’t always absolutely persuaded by De Vincenzi’s methods and he’s not the most interesting series character I’ve read, but the setting, tone and plot worked well enough and overall it was a fun lightweight read. I plan to read the next in the series, which Pushkin Vertigo have already released.
Guy wrote this one up at his, here.
11 responses to “Doing wrong for its own sake made him happy.”
It *does* sound entertaining, if a little melodramatic – but maybe that’s the Italian temperament for you! ;)))
Isn’t the fog rather overdone in crime novels? I’m listening to an audio version of one of Marjorie Alingham’s novels and that’s heavily fog bound
Entertaining but melodramatic is about right. It’s solid genre stuff. Fun but nothing groundbreaking.
It is, yes, but this was written around the late 1930s which makes it a bit more forgivable. Still, he’s not a writer to avoid obvious but effective techniques.
There are some genre writers where I say they push the boundary of their genre. They define it as Chandler did or redefine its potential as say William Gibson did. De Vincenzi isn’t one of those. He’s a solid writer within his chosen form, but he doesn’t advance or challenge that form.
In old Italy, hunchbacks were considered good luck. People would ask to rub his/her back before buying a lottery ticket for example. I wonder if that has an impact on the story at all.
I was trapped in a mountain hotel in heavy fog two weeks ago actually and it really is an Agatha Christie type scenario, as everyone sits in the bar waiting for the fog to lift…
It sounds mildly amusing but skippable in the context of some of the other Pushkin Vertigos – too many characters perhaps? I keep hoping for more from Piero Chiara as The Disappearance of Signora Giulia was wonderful.
I’m with you. If they’d been British, I don’t think I would have continued either. Since I liked the third one in the series the most, perhaps they just get better.
Thanks for the mention (it’s the Murdered Banker)
This sounds like a short, entertaining read. I might give it a go, though I’ve one more Dard to read first. I do appreciate the fact that they are often cheap on Kindle.
Coincidentally reading a 30s detective novel at he moment – Friedrich Glauser. Have you read him?
It doesn’t Alastair, but a contemporary reader would have been aware of that so it’s interesting to know.
Jacqui, he juggles the characters pretty well actually, it doesn’t read as too many and you need a certain volume of them for it to be credible(ish, it’s never that credible). Skippable is fair though. It’s fun, not essential, and there’s plenty of other fun books out there. Frankly, if I were to recommend one fun Italian crime novel from my blog it would be the recent Bar Lumi one about the barkeep investigating crime with the help of his 80-year-old customers rather than this.
Guy, the fact I misremembered the title rather speaks to its staying power doesn’t it? Thanks for the correction. I noticed you liked the third best. I’ll likely read it, but I do wonder if my time would be better spent with other writers.
Grant, I’ve not read or even heard of Glauser. How’s it going?
I suspect the kindle pricing has influenced me, but the British Crime Library ones generally go for only £2.99 as well. You could read nothing but those and probably be a fairly happy reader (well, not you personally or me personally but if it were your preferred genre you easily could).
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