Category Archives: Pushkin Vertigo

only someone who knew how to read the murderer’s soul could unmask them.

The Mystery of the Three Orchids, by Augusto De Angelis and translated by Jill Foulston

When it came down to it he was sentimental, and he had an instinctive respect for the dead, for scoundrels who’d once been alive.

I read this one back in early July so it’s a little unfair to review it now. It’s not a book that’s really intended to linger in the memory; it’s an afternoon’s light entertainment.

This is the third of De Angelis’ vintage Italian crime novels published by Pushkin’s Vertigo imprint. It features once again his Inspector De Vincenzi, whose efficiency I continue to doubt. I’ve read all three novels now and I can’t help but think that if De Vincenzi were a little more diligent the body count in these books would be much lower.

This time the action takes place in a Milan fashion house, which is about as good a setting as one could hope for. The house’s American owner Cristiana O’Brien discovers the dead body of her general dogsbody Valerio laid out on her bed and a single orchid placed where she can’t fail to see it. The orchid has a sinister significance for her, though we’ll have to wait to find out why.

Soon De Vincenzi is on the scene and not before time because there’s a fair few suspects to work through:

  • Cristiana herself, whom we immediately learn has a dark secret and shady past that she dearly needs to hide;
  • “Prospero O’Lary, the administrative secretary of the business” who looks like “a black tortoise ill with meningitis”;
  • the bronzed fashion designer Madame Firmino who can’t bear the rich women who buy her creations, each of which is created for willowy models but worn by flabby society women;
  • Evelina the immensely fat and rather diligent bookkeeper whom De Vincenzi immediately takes a liking to since “You can’t weigh more than a hundred kilos without having a correspondingly light conscience!”;
  • a glamorous former American bank robber who “looked like a rich peasant, with a red birthmark on his forehead, ruddy blond hair, a solid chest and the sweet and innocent expression of a man used to living in the open air”;
  • the bank robber’s beautiful sister with a “a pretty little tabby cat’s face” and eyes which “had the clean lines of almonds, with glowing green irises”; and
  • of course, the models themselves Irma, Gioia, Anna, Clara none of whom seem particularly supportive of each other.

Phew! For a short book it’s fairly packed with larger than life characters. Of course the bodies (and accompanying orchids) soon start to stack up, which is handy really as it’s one of the few things that seems to help De Vincenzi narrow down the list of suspects. He is disadvantaged though by almost all the suspects being women, since:

He knew that a sudden, unexpected question can take a man by surprise, but a woman, never. Lying and distraction come easily to women; their deviousness is automatic.

And later…

How could one distinguish truth from false-hood in a woman’s statements, and how could one find logic in her words and actions?

Ahem. Well, it was written in 1942 so I think you just have to make the occasional allowance for period.

The previous two novels suffered a little from an excess of portentous dialogue about how terrible and shocking the crimes were. There’s a bit of that here: “Listen to me, Signora. What has happened in this house over the last ten hours isn’t only tragic, it’s frightening, grotesque and absurd.” Generally though it’s lighter touch than the previous books and better for it.

Over at his blog Stu compared this to “those great american  crime radio dramas where the crime is all wrapped neatly up in half an Hour” which I really like as an analysis. It captures the book’s strength which is that it’s fun, a bit frothy and a quick read. It’s what Emma of Bookaround might describe as a beach and public transport book.

There’s not a lot more to say really. Obviously I don’t want to spoil the plot which builds up as you’d expect to the ultimate reveal by the detective where he confronts the culprit in front of a roomful of people and sets out the chain of evidence that proves their guilt (though as ever any decent lawyer could probably knock a good few holes in it however right the detective may be).

It’s a very traditional crime novel, but set in a fun period and milieu. For me the De Angelis novels are a slightly odd choice for Pushkin Press who usually opt for more challenging material. Still, they merit rediscovery and nobody else is publishing them in translation so why not?

Other reviews

Stu, as mentioned above, reviewed it at Winston’s Dad’s Blog here. Guy also reviewed it at His Futile Preoccupations here. Guy had this as his favourite of the De Angelis, though for me I think that would be The Hotel of the Three Roses which has an even better cast than this and which I actually remember better despite reading far longer ago.

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Crime Fiction, De Angelis, Augusto, Italian Literature, Pushkin Vertigo

Doing wrong for its own sake made him happy.

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.

three-roses

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.

Other reviews

Guy wrote this one up at his, here.

11 Comments

Filed under Crime Fiction, De Angelis, Augusto, Italian Literature, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo

Reality outwaits us all.

Bird in a Cage, by Frédéric Dard and translated by David Bellos

Albert has been away from home for six years. He returns just before Christmas to an empty apartment unchanged since his mother’s death some four years past. Albert is alone and lonely.

He heads out onto the crowded streets of his Paris suburb and goes to a grand restaurant his mother always dreamed of eating in but never dared to. Now he’ll eat in it without her. Along the way he buys “a small silver cardboard birdcage sprinkled with glitter dust” with a tiny velvet bird inside. He has no tree to decorate, but the tiny ornament is a reminder of the past he’s lost.

birdinacage

The restaurant is grand and traditional and packed with families and Christmas shoppers. Dard describes it rather well, including how it doesn’t even smell like an ordinary restaurant:

Chiclet’s smelled of absinthe and snails, and of old wood too.

I loved that little snippet of description. Near Albert’s table is a woman with a small child. He can’t help but observe them:

The woman looked like Anna. She had dark hair as Anna did, the same dark and almond-shaped eyes, the same dusky complexion and the same witty, sensual lips that scared me. She might have been twenty-seven, which is what Anna would have been. She was very pretty and smartly dressed. The little girl didn’t have her eyes, or her hair, or her nose, but in spite of that she still managed to look like her mother.

We don’t yet know who Anna was. The woman flirts lightly with Albert, but eventually their meals come to their end and the woman leaves with the girl. Albert leaves too:

Let me be clear: I was not following them. I picked the same street simply because it was the way to my flat.

Of course, Albert, of course. He follows them to a nearby cinema. They buy a ticket; so does he. The usherette thinks they’re together and sits him next to the woman.

I could feel the human warmth of the woman, and it overwhelmed me. The perfume of her overcoat shattered me.

He’s not sure if she’s inviting his attention or simply indifferent, but he ends up going home with her. After that, things get complicated.

Bird in a Cage is a little gem of a novel. It’s 120 pages just and brilliantly judged. By going to that restaurant, buying that little bird in a cage, Albert has walked into a situation that wouldn’t be out of place in a Clouzot film and I ate the whole book up in practically one sitting.

It’s actually difficult to say a lot more without spoiling this. I’ve not really touched on the plot and I’d strongly recommend against reading any kind of synopsis. This is a book where you want to be as lost as Albert and where you want to discover alongside him what’s really going on.

Bird has melancholy, regret, passion and murder. It’s very much a psychological piece as Albert finds himself trapped between the horror of an incomprehensible nightmare inside the woman’s flat and the dream of some desperately needed human connection in the form of the woman herself. It is very, very good and exactly the kind of book I look to Pushkin for.

There are some stylistic issues. Dard massively overuses exclamation marks and really doesn’t need to since his plot is dramatic enough without them. There was a point where I started to find that slightly jarring, but then the intensity of the story kicked in and I stopped noticing quite so much. It’s a flaw, but not a fatal one and certainly not one that would make me hesitate to recommend this book to anyone with a taste for psychological noir fiction.

I’m conscious this is a particularly short review, but far better here to say too little than too much. I’ve already bought Pushkin’s second Dard, The Wicked Go to Hell, and I look forward to more. Dard was one of these insanely prolific writers (over 300 novels according to Wikipedia) so he should keep Pushkin busy for a while yet.

Other reviews

Guy Savage at His Futile Preoccupations reviewed this here and inspired me to read it. Thanks, as so often before, are due accordingly.

17 Comments

Filed under Crime Fiction, Dard, Frédéric, French Literature, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo

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.

the-murdered-banker

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.

10 Comments

Filed under Crime Fiction, De Angelis, Augusto, Italian Literature, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo

Being a man was too difficult.

She Who Was No More, by Boileau-Narcejac and translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury

A year or so back I saw Clouzot’s superb Les Diaboliques, a film which beats Hitchcock at his own game. What I didn’t know then is that it’s based on this novel, by writing duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac who also wrote the novel Vertigo was based on.

The plot of Les Diaboliques is pretty well-known now, despite the film famously having a plea before the end credits asking audiences not to spoil the ending for others. Just in case anyone reading this doesn’t know it though I’ll avoid spoilers here. Boileau-Narcejac meant the reader to be uncertain what was going on and if you get the chance to read this cold I suspect it’ll be much more effective.

SheWhoWasNoMore

I love these Pushkin Vertigo covers.

Ravinel is a travelling salesman. He sells fishing gear, and is so good at making artificial lures that there’s an entire page in his company’s brochure dedicated solely to his creations. It’s the only thing he’s good at.

Ravinel is married to the pretty and pleasant Mireille. There’s no great reason they shouldn’t be happy enough, save for their doctor Lucienne who’s having an affair with Ravinel and has persuaded him to kill Mireille for the insurance money. Ravinel is too weak to say no or to ask why he’s planning to kill a perfectly decent woman at the behest of another he doesn’t even particularly like.

Lucienne is the driving force here. She’s cold, ambitious and greedy. When Ravinel has sex with her it’s hasty and functional. He has a poor heart and afterwards she often checks how his pulse is faring. Personally I’d find that a little off-putting. There’s little sense she loves Ravinel.

The plan is a simple one. Ravinel and Lucienne drown Mireille in a bathtub then place the body in a lavoir, an outdoor wash-hut, so that it’ll look like she had an accident. The next day Ravinel will come home and discover her there. After a suitable period of grieving he’ll claim the insurance and he and Lucienne will go off into the sunset.

Lucienne does all the hard work. All Ravinel has to do is drug a decanter Mireille drinks from so that she passes out. After that it’s Lucienne who has to push her down into a bath, load weights on her chest to keep her under, make sure she’s dead and then wrap the body in a rug for transportation. Ravinel doesn’t even have the strength to admit what they’ve done let alone do it himself.

It wasn’t he, Ravinel, who was guilty. No one was. Mireille had drunk a soporific. A bathtub was filling up. That was all. There was nothing terrible about it, and nothing which had anything to do with crime.

The murder comes off. The next part is down to Ravinel. He has to discover the body and he has to do so without Lucienne as if she’s there it’ll raise suspicion. The problem is, when it comes time to discover the body it’s gone missing. Left trying to explain the inexplicable Ravinel’s mind begins to unravel. The structure of the lavoir means it couldn’t have washed away, but there’s no reason for anyone to have stolen it and it could hardly have wandered off on its own…

As theory after theory passed through his mind, he became once more overwhelmed by a sensation of helplessness. After a while he decided that the body hadn’t been stolen after all. But it wasn’t there. So it must have been. But nobody could possibly want to steal it… And so it went on, round and round in a circle. Ravinel felt a little pain beneath his left temple and rubbed the spot. No question of his falling ill at this juncture. He simply hadn’t the right to! But what was he to do, Bon Dieu, what was he to do?

It gets a lot worse, a lot more puzzling, from there.

She Who Was is very much a novel of psychological suspense. It’s an intensely moody book, with noirish lines like “she lifted her little veil, in which raindrops had been caught as in a spider’s web.” Ravinel though is the one caught. Boileau-Narcejac fill the book with fog, thickly but effectively laying on the atmosphere. The fog lies so heavy that Ravinel can barely drive his car or find his way down the street, but it’s the fog in his head he’s really lost in.

She Who Was clocks in at a little under 200 pages making it a concentrated café noir of a book. Ravinelle is weak and confused and Lucienne’s not the sort you’d look to for comfort. She practically bullies Ravinel into murder and he never has the wit to question what his fate is likely to be once they’re married and she’s set to inherit all that insurance money. There are also hints that he might not be the only one she had an affair with – when he looks at photos of a holiday he and Mireille took with Lucienne all the photos are of the two women happy together, none are of him. Mireille’s body isn’t the only thing Ravinel can’t see.

There’s no denying that She Who Was would be a stronger book if you don’t know what’s actually going on, which I did. The ideal reader would be as lost in the fog as Ravinel himself, only emerging from it as he does. It’s still effective even so and features a particularly chilling final line which ties the book up as neatly and disturbingly as one might wish.

Other reviews

Guy Savage reviewed this at His Futile Preoccupations here as effectively as ever and there’s a very good review at the Pretty Sinister blog here that goes into a lot more plot elements than either Guy or I do (if you know the movie there’s no spoilers, if you don’t you might prefer to read that review after). My review of Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo is here.

 

8 Comments

Filed under Boileau-Narcejac, Crime Fiction, French Literature, Pushkin Vertigo

What we won’t do to hang on to a relationship that’s slipping away from us, an image of fading love.

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, by Piero Chiara and translated by Jill Foulston

Back in 2009 the director Carol Morley made a documentary about Joyce Carol Vincent, a woman who lay dead in her apartment for a month before anyone discovered her. Morley explored how a woman who had had friends, a good job, a life, could somehow slip through the cracks and at less than forty years of age find themselves dying without anyone noticing they were gone.

There’s nothing in the plot or characters of The Disappearance of Signora Giulia that brings Joyce Vincent’s story to mind, and referencing Joyce Vincent is in no way a spoiler for anything in this book. The connection is of mood: a haunting sense that something important has happened but without knowing exactly what or how; of having questions to which there may never be an answer.

Disappearance

It’s 1955, Northern Italy. Giulia is a beautiful woman married to a much older man, the respected lawyer Esengrini. Every Thursday morning she takes the train to Milan to visit their daughter. One Thursday she doesn’t arrive. Back at home there are signs of a robbery, and there’s no evidence she ever even got on the train. She’s vanished.

Esengrini asks Commissario Sciancalepre to look into the case. Both men suspect the visits to the daughter may have been cover to an affair, but did Giulia run away or did something happen to her?

‘Sciancalepre, you’re a southerner and can understand certain things better than I can. I can’t say that I’m not up to it, but I’m definitely getting there. In recent years, our twenty-year age difference has really created a gap between my wife and me. Did you notice that even though our rooms are next to each other, they’re separate? It’s been like that for more than a year. Signora Giulia wants nothing more to do with me in bed. She says that for me, bed is a branch of the office: I read trial proceedings, take notes and look through legal journals until late. I’m sixty, you know, and I’m like any other sixty-year-old man. But my wife is only thirty-eight, to be exact…’

It doesn’t take long for Sciancalepre to find evidence of adultery, a possibly criminal matter in post-Fascist Italy. The clues however soon dry up and the case becomes unsolved. Years pass, with the question of what happened to Signora Giulia nagging at Sciancalepre. Eventually Esengrini and Giulia’s daughter grows up and comes into her trust fund and possession of the house where Giulia was last seen, which brings new evidence into light and means Sciancalepre may be able to solve the greatest mystery of his career after all.

Sciancalepre makes a likable protagonist. He’s intelligent and sympathetic, but professionally sceptical and he’s quite aware that Esengrini might only have initiated the investigation in order to divert suspicion from the possibility of his own guilt. Better yet however, Sciancalepre is thoroughly Italian:

They started their search in the office. At twelve-thirty the operation was suspended for lunch. Sciancalepre couldn’t do without his pasta,

This is a slim novel, just 120 pages or so, and yet it has enough twists for a book easily twice its size. I guessed around the three-quarters mark who must have done it, and sure enough Sciancalepre duly arrested them, but the novel doesn’t stop there and more complex questions of proof and guilt arrive undermining both my and his certainty. The novel becomes slippery and truth elusive.

Disappearance partly draws on the cosy crime and locked room mystery genres (there’s no locked room here, but there is a puzzle about how exactly Signora Giulia disappeared on that otherwise ordinary Thursday morning). Neither are genres I care for, and I’m not therefore a particularly good reader for this book. Even so, I enjoyed it and I think it makes an interesting addition to the Pushkin Vertigo lineup as it’s ultimately a disquieting and unexpected read.

Beyond that, it’s hard to say much without spoiling it for others (which hopefully the small discussion I’ve had here won’t do). It’s short and cleanly written and translated and if you’re anything at all like me it’ll still trouble you after you’ve turned the final page. What more could one really ask for?

Other reviews

I was sold this by reviews from David Hebblethwaite at David’s Book Blog, here; and from Guy Savage at His Futile Preoccupations, here.

17 Comments

Filed under Chiara, Piero, Crime Fiction, Italian Literature, Italy, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo

One doesn’t step into anyone’s life, not even a dead man’s, without having to live it to the end.

I Was Jack Mortimer, by Alexander Lernet-Holenia and translated by Ignat Avsey

As a kid I used to love the British TV show The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. For those who haven’t seen it Perrin is a moderately senior businessman loved by his family and respected by his colleagues who decides he just can’t face his own life any more. There’s no crisis as such, no determining event, it just gets to the point where he can’t live with the tedium of the everyday.

Perrin fakes his own suicide, but discovers that escaping yourself isn’t as easy as it looks. Ferdinand Sponer would sympathise.

MortimerVertigo

Sponer is a taxi-driver in 1930s Vienna. He has a steady girlfriend and there’s an expectation they’ll marry, but there’s no urgency to it so as yet they haven’t. He finds himself attracted to a young aristocratic woman he picks up as a fare, Marisabelle von Raschitz. She’s beautiful and aloof and doesn’t notice him at all. He tracks her down hoping to make a connection and strikes up a conversation with her. He’s good-looking but he’s not remotely part of her world and while he manages to briefly impinge on her awareness she walks on dismissing him from her life as she might a cat she’d stopped to stroke in the street.

Soon Sponer has picked up another fare. This time it’s an expensively dressed young man of similar age to Sponer himself. To Sponer’s horror when he turns round to ask his fare a question the man’s dead, shot twice. Sponer realised that someone must have leaped on the running board while they were in traffic and that the noise of passing trucks must have masked the sounds of the shooting.

Sponer panics. He fears the police will blame him and so decides to dump the body, but then he realises that once the body is found it won’t take long to discover that the dead man was last seen taking a taxi, and the other drivers will describe Sponer and the police will want to know why he dumped the body. The only answer is to make sure the dead man is seen alive at his destination. Sponer has to become the dead man, check into his hotel and create a visual trail so the police won’t trace the body back to him.

Ok, that makes no sense at all, but it’s the premise of the book. The dead man is Jack Mortimer and Sponer has to assume his identity to cover up his own inadvertent part in Mortimer’s murder. If Sponer were thinking more clearly he’d have realised that people might come to the hotel looking for Mortimer and that impersonating an American tourist isn’t your best idea when you don’t actually speak much English, but if Sponer were thinking more clearly he’d have called the police in the first place and then carried on with his life.

I have a rule for books with unlikely premises – I’ll generally give them one gimme. I think most readers work much the same way. There’s no point reading a book about vampires and getting hung up on the fact there’s no such thing. You have to accept vampires or there’s no book.

Here the gimme is that Sponer decides his best bet is to become Mortimer. You just have to accept that or there’s no book. The trouble is, Lernet-Holenia spends a fair amount of time setting out Sponer’s chain of reasoning and the circumstances that push him in that direction. That makes for a slightly slow start as frankly however much justification is established it still never makes much sense, and the reality is if I weren’t already prepared to accept that outcome I wouldn’t have picked this up. Lernet-Holenia could learn here from Edgar Rice Burroughs. If your book is about the centre of the Earth, there’s really no need to waste too much time describing how everyone gets there.

Once Sponer is Mortimer the book finally kicks into gear. Sponer receives a phone call in his room from a clearly distraught woman, but she calls in English and he can’t understand her. Soon she’s in the lobby and he’s wondering quite what he’s got himself into. To make things worse he’s not considered the point that somebody wanted Mortimer dead and that when they hear Mortimer somehow made it to his hotel after all they might come back to finish the job.

The meat here isn’t whodunnit, but whoisit? As himself Sponer was a nobody, a working class joe making enough to get by but never enough for any more than that. Now he’s staying at a high-end hotel with money in his pocket, and while things start going downhill very fast he’s not just some guy anymore. Ironically, it’s by losing his own identity that he’s finally become somebody.

I Was Jack Mortimer works reasonably well as a thriller, but like a lot of crime fiction the murder and its consequences are just means to an end. Here that’s the exploration of issues of wealth, class and identity. Sponer’s journey through the Vienna night takes him from cheap late-night bars back to Marisabelle von Raschitz’ apartment and much in between and the book is at its best when conjuring up this now vanished Vienna.

Right there on the left was a slot-machine bar. He went in. It was a large, circular, dome-shaped room with slot machines around the perimeter and tables in the middle at which people were eating and drinking. A radio was blaring. He walked past the machines and studied the labels. Over one of the taps was the inscription “Sherry”. He picked up a glass, held it under the tap, and inserted a coin in the slot. The interior emitted a hollow gurgling and spluttering sound, and sherry—somewhat unappetisingly, he thought—gushed from the metal tap into the glass. There are many people who don’t enjoy the luxury of having desert wines served up elegantly. Slot-machine bars are meant for the likes of them.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is that Lernet-Holenia describes every street Sponer drives down and every location he goes into, so that my distinct impression was that if you wished you could walk around Vienna holding a copy of the book and following Sponer’s trail. It’s a classic example of a novel where the city is just as much a character as any of the people.

Where the book works less well is pacing. After that slow start I mentioned the book picks up and becomes a lot more fun, but then at around the half-way mark switches continent and characters so as to explore the background to Mortimer’s killing. Conan Doyle does something similar in A Study in Scarlet where early on the focus moves to Mormon Utah and for a large chunk of the book Holmes and Watson are accordingly nowhere to be seen, with the story returning to them only after it’s fully explored the American backstory to the London crime.

Here Lernet-Holenia does something similar, but it doesn’t work nearly as well as it did for Conan Doyle. Just as I’d really bought in to Sponer and his situation I found myself following a bunch of new characters I didn’t really care about in a setting much less interesting than 1930s Vienna. Fortunately we return to Sponer reasonably quickly and from there the book gets its momentum back, but it’s a distracting midpoint wobble.

I’m at risk by now of making it sound like this isn’t a good book, which would be unfair. It’s not a great book and it has some definite structural issues, but it’s short enough that the digressions never take too long and overall it’s a light and fun read. Sponer’s girlfriend gets involved and helpfully is both more interesting and more sympathetic than Sponer himself, and there’s genuine interest in Sponer’s transformation in the eyes of Marisabelle von Raschitz as his identities ebb and flow.

I’ll end with a final quote. Sponer is attracted to Marisabelle von Raschitz as much for what she represents as what she is. Sponer’s father was an infantry officer but died when Sponer was young, leaving his family to slide into poverty. Marisabelle is part of the world he could have had. Here he visit’s his girlfriend’s family, who live in the world he got instead:

The air in the room was stuffy and it smelt of food. On the stairs it had smelt the same, just as in the flat he rented from the Oxenbauers, and in the flats and on the stairs of the friends he had, and the acquaintances he sometimes visited. The air was stuffy and it smelt of food. Here people lived and then married, and their children in turn were brought up in flats where the air was stuffy and it smelt of food and a few other indefinable substances. Such was their life.

Faced with that, who wouldn’t be tempted to put on a dead man’s clothes?

Other reviews

I Was Jack Mortimer has been widely and well reviewed. Kaggsy of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings reviewed it here, Guy of His Futile Preoccupations here, Tom Cunliffe of A Common Reader’s here and Stu of Winston’sDad’sblog here. I’m sure there are others I’ve missed, and if anyone reading this has also reviewed it please feel free to include a link in the comments.

13 Comments

Filed under Lernet-Holenia, Alexander, Pushkin Vertigo

Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac

Vertigo, by Boileau-Narcejac and translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury

Like I suspect a lot of people I had no idea Hitchcock’s Vertigo was based on a book. The film, if you’ve not seen it, is easily among Hitchcock’s best and is a masterpiece of mood and obsessive desire. I’m a big fan of it.

When Pushkin Press recently launched their new crime imprint they named it Vertigo, after this book (or more properly after the film, since the book’s title roughly translates as Among the Dead). No surprise then that it was one of their initial release titles.

It’s classic Pushkin material. We’re talking mid-20th Century underappreciated European fiction here, and if that’s not Pushkin’s beat what is?

I’m going to write this review on the assumption you’ve not seen the film, though anyone reading this probably has.

Vertigo

Before I start, that photo above doesn’t really do the book justice. The new Pushkin Vertigo range have a simple but very effective graphic design – relatively few elements but with a nicely judged off-kilter sense of unease.

Paris, 1940. Roger Flavières is a former policeman turned lawyer. His practice hasn’t taken off and his life hasn’t gone as he’d hoped. “He was one of those people who hate mediocrity without themselves being able to scale the heights.” He’s a damaged man, crippled by guilt over a colleague’s death that he blames himself for and which caused him to quit the police.

As the novel opens Flavières  is contacted by old acquaintance Paul Gévigne, a successful industrialist who needs somebody he can trust to watch his wife, Madeleine. Gévigne claims that Madeleine has become oddly distant, that she seems to go into increasingly frequent trances and extraordinary as it might seem that she may be being influenced by the spirit of a dead ancestor. Gévigne wants to take care of her, but with war in the offing he’s too busy expanding into the arms trade and putting himself in position to profit from the coming conflict.

Flavières finds Gévigne repugnant and is reluctant to get involved, but he agrees at least to take a look at Madeleine. From the moment he does so he’s sunk.

… his thoughts lingered over her eyes, intensely blue, but so pale that they didn’t seem quite alive, eyes which certainly could never express passion. The cheeks were slightly hollowed out under prominent cheekbones, just sufficiently to harbour a faint shadow which suggested languor. Her mouth was small with hardly any lipstick on it – the mouth of a dreamy child. Madeleine – yes, that was undoubtedly the right name for her. […] She was unhappy, of course.

Flavières begins to follow Madeleine, but soon moves from being an investigator to a sort of paid companion. Gévigne encourages Flavières to spend all his days with her, even when Flavières admits he’s developing feelings. Gévigne doesn’t care, argues that’s to the good as it’ll make Flavières all the more diligent. The situation reeks, but Flavières ignores the warning signs as the more time he spends with Madeleine the more he idolises her and the less he can bear the idea of being apart from her.

Let’s look back at that quote above. Flavières’ never been good with women, and now he has Madeleine with her “eyes which certainly could never express passion” and her “mouth of a dreamy child”. He loves her, but his love is worship of a goddess, not desire for a woman.

Meanwhile in the background the war continues. Early on nobody takes it that seriously – the press is full of opinion pieces about how the German army is hopelessly ill-equipped to advance and of the folly of German aggression. Both France and Flavières are in denial, but the sun is shining, Flavières is in love and the German menace is distant and not to be taken too seriously.

For me easily the most audacious part of the novel was the mirroring of Flavières’ fortunes and those of France itself. As he begins to worry how long he can protect Madeleine from herself and her increasingly otherworldly moods, the news from the front becomes more disquieting. The press remains upbeat, yet the fighting keeps getting closer to Paris. Neither situation can last.

It was known now that the German armour was advancing on Arras, and that the fate of the country was in the balance. Every day more cars drove through the town, looking for the bridge and the road to the South. And people stood in the streets silently staring at them, their hearts empty. They were more and more dirty, more and more ramshackle. With a shamefaced curiosity, people would question the fugitives. In all this, Flavières saw the image of his own disaster. He had no longer the strength to go back to Paris.

The novel then jumps forward four years, to a ruined France and equally ruined Flavières. The personal and the public are here inseparable; one a mirror to the other. Flavieres believed Madeleine long dead, but then sees her in a post-war newsreel; he’s already lost her once, he won’t let it happen a second time.

Vertigo is a clever and psychologically astute examination of desire and obsession. Flavières’ character is expertly realised, and the slow unravelling of what’s really going on with Gévigne and Madeleine is masterfully handled. If you have seen the film you’ll know much of the gist, but the film changes a lot too and there are subtleties here which it can’t equal (much as I love it).

The afterword explains that writing duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac wanted “to develop a new kind of crime fiction”, less whodunnits and more victim-focused nightmares. On the strength of Vertigo they succeeded, and while I received this book as a review copy I’ll definitely be buying Pushkin’s other Boileau-Narcejac.

I’ll end with a small note on the translation. Generally it reads smoothly and the language is effective and evocative. I can’t say how true it is to the original, but it reads well. Very occasionally however translator Geoffrey Sainsbury leaves a phrase in French, presumably for flavour but I found it slightly jarring as in my imagination at least the whole thing is in French (and on one occasion I actually didn’t know what a phrase meant which seemed needlessly irritating). Still, despite that complaint if Sainsbury has translated the other Boileau-Narcejac I’ll still be pleased to see his name (tucked away in the copyright page as it is).

Other reviews

Lots and lots of them. I noted both Jacqui’s review from her Jacquiwine’s Journal, here and Guy’s review from His Futile Preoccupations here. Both of those are sufficiently good as to make mine rather redundant. However, I’m sure I’ve also read others which I’ve since lost the link to so as always please feel free to link me to them in the comments.

18 Comments

Filed under Boileau-Narcejac, Crime Fiction, French Literature, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo

“Things that have happened are never over and done with,”

Master of the Day of Judgment by Leo Perutz, and translated by Eric Mosbacher

Early 20th Century Vienna has to be one of the most fascinating periods and settings in literature. The end of the Austro-Hungarian empire saw an explosion in talent: Robert MusilJoseph Roth, Arthur Schnitzler, Ernst Weiss; Stefan Zweig (and that’s just the ones I’ve personally read). Vienna in particular was a hotbed of ideas: Marxism and Freudianism offered new models of society and the individual, each of them challenging established traditions and philosophies.

It’s a natural setting for a crime novel, so much so that author Frank Tallis has set a successful series there with a disciple of Freud as his detective. Long before that though there was Master of the Day of Judgment, written in 1921 by a Viennese author steeped in the passions of his time. It is, quite simply, brilliant.

Master

Baron von Yosch is a soldier and aristocrat. He is setting down, for who knows what audience, his recollection of a terrifying series of events that occurred some years previously in 1909. He insists on the accuracy of his memories, down even to remembering minor newspaper stories of the day on which everything started. He insists so strongly in fact that immediately I began to wonder, why is the Baron so keen to persuade me he has forgotten no detail no matter how small?

Among the newspaper stories that day was a bank failure. Baron von Yosch had already moved his funds, but he knew his friend Eugen Bischoff had not. The Baron could have warned Eugen of the impending collapse, but as he reflects:

… would [Bischoff] have believed me? He always regarded me as a retailer of false information. Why meddle in other people’s affairs?

The Baron seems then a somewhat cold individual. A man whose friends don’t trust him, and who cares so little for them in turn that he won’t even try to warn one of possible ruin. This is our narrator; our guide to the events that claimed several lives. The Baron’s foreword gives us a premonition that whatever happened must have been truly terrible, and I found myself briefly reminded of Perutz’ contemporary H.P. Lovecraft:

Thus the whole sinister and tragic business lasted five days only, from 26 to 30 September. The dramatic hunt for the culprit, the pursuit of an invisible enemy who was not of flesh and blood but a fearsome ghost from past centuries lasted for just five days. We found a trail of blood and followed it. A gateway to the past quietly opened. None of us suspected where it led, and it seems to me today that we groped painfully step by step down a long dark passage at the end of which a monster was waiting for us with upraised cudgel. The cudgel came down twice, three times, the last blow was meant for me, and I should have been done for and shared Eugen Bischoff’s and Solgrub’s dreadful fate had I not been snatched back to life in the nick of time.

Sometimes sheer terror seizes me and sends me to the window, feeling that the dreadful waves of that terrible light must be rushing across the sky, and I cannot grasp the fact that overhead there’s the sun, concealed in silvery mist or surrounded by purple clouds or alone in the endless blue and round me wherever I look are the old, familiar colours, those of the terrestrial world. Since that day I have never seen again that fearful trumpet red.

It sounds like a work of gothic or cosmic horror, but it’s soon apparent that it’s not quite that simple. In fact, despite coming in at comfortably under 200 pages, nothing in this novel is simple.

Eugen Bischoff is a famous actor whose best days are past. His career is sharply in decline and now he has lost his life’s savings. The morning’s newspaper has been hidden from him so as to ensure he doesn’t get the news cold, and his friends have gathered round to support him, the Baron among them.

We know of course that Bischoff will die, the Baron’s foreword listed him among the victims. What we learn quickly is that Eugen is married to the Baron’s former lover, a woman the Baron still has feelings for. It’s a source of tension, and matters worsen when the Baron accidentally makes reference to the day’s events in ways which might give the game away. Well, the Baron’s writing the story and he says it’s accidental, but everyone else present seems to think he’s toying with Bischoff and amusing himself by seeing how far he can push the frail actor.

Bischoff leaves the room, and shortly afterwards two shots are heard. The Baron rushes to the scene where he finds Bischoff dying, a mutual doctor friend present but too late to save him. Bischoff casts a final gaze at von Yosch filled with pure hatred and speaks his last words – a reference to the day of judgment.

Almost everyone concludes that the Baron followed Bischoff, told him of the bank’s failure and gloated over him until Bischoff in panic and despair took his own life. The Baron however swears on his honour that he only entered the room after Bischoff already lay dying. Only the engineer Solgrub believes the Baron, and he sets out to discover what truly led to Bischoff’s death.

There are two mysteries here. One is why Bischoff killed himself. The other is why everyone who knows the Baron is so quick to believe he could be responsible. His former lover clearly blames him for her husband’s death, and her brother Felix demands that the Baron should take his own life as payment for his crime. Whether the Baron forced Bischoff into suicide is up for debate, whether he was capable of such an act however seems to be much more clear-cut. Even he is not entirely certain, at times remembering himself in the room and then dismissing the memory as false and produced by the stress of the situation (but notably not as out of character).

Solgrub’s investigation soon leads him to suspicions of another agent in the drama, a mysterious Dr Mabuse-like figure able to force men to suicide simply by forcing his will upon theirs (interestingly the novel Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler was also published in 1921). Solgrub and Felix agree then that Bischoff’s suicide was prompted by a third party, they just differ on whether that was von Yosch or this mysterious stranger. The Baron meanwhile reckons that he can solve the mystery himself, but soon finds his investigation overlapping with Solgrub’s.

At various points this moves from being a tale of gothic horror to a locked room mystery, to an amateur detective story and back again, but in truth it’s more than all of those. It becomes like so many good Austro-Hungarian novels a tale of psychological suspense. Solgrub is racing against time as the Baron, without even consciously realising what he’s doing, begins to make preparations for his own suicide. Society’s judgment demands that the Baron satisfy the demands of honour, and Solgrub is the only man truly convinced of the Baron’s innocence.

After a young failed artist connected with Bischoff also commits suicide, Solgrub strives to find a connection between the victims and to persuade Felix that there’s a common culprit. A hypothesis emerges that the slain may have willingly risked insanity and death for artistic inspiration; that creativity and terror draw from the same deep interior wells and that their own ambitions were the cause of their destruction. Now Solgrub wants to know what the dead knew, and we know from the foreword that before the story’s out he’ll join them.

That foreword casts a shadow over the whole narrative. We know the Baron lives and Solgrub dies, but not how or why. We don’t know what that “trumpet red” that von Yosch so cryptically referred to could be, or what exactly still terrifies him years later as he writes his account. As I raced towards the end I found myself asking more and more what kind of book I was reading, whether this was supernatural horror or psychological or something else altogether.

I’ll leave that last puzzle for each of you to answer for yourselves. The journey and the destination both are too satisfying to be lightly spoiled.

Other reviews

Only one on the blogosphere that I’ve found, by David Auerbach here. The Auerbach review gives away a bit more than I have, but not remotely fatally. I’ll also caution against the review in The Independent, which while positive I think rather misses the point of the book.

20 Comments

Filed under Austro-Hungarian Literature, Perutz, Leo, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo