This post will be my the fiftieth review for Mysteries Ahoy! and, to mark the occasion, I knew that I wanted to find something a little bit special.
Being on something of an inverted mystery kick, I have been doing lots of research into the various novels available that belong to that sub-genre. As I read articles, encyclopedia entries and guides, I have been writing down titles that catch my eye but none struck me quite so much as The Priest’s Hat and the moment I found out about it I was quite determined that I would track a copy down for the blog.
The novel was apparently one of the earliest examples of the Italian giallo form which combines elements of horror, mystery and suspense. It was written in 1887 and published in installments before being collected into a volume for publication in 1888.
The story was inspired by the then-recent news stories concerning the Count Faella d’Imola who had killed a priest for his money, been arrested and died in prison. While De Marchi’s characters have different names and some of the circumstances of the crime differ, it is clear that this work certainly uses the details of that case as a starting point to explore the psychology of the criminal leading up to and following a murder.
The murderer in this story is the Baron Carlo Coriolano di Santafusca who, we are told in the first sentence, did not believe in God or the Devil. We discover that he is a libertine who is in dire financial straits, having mortgaged his property and borrowed from his tenants to pay for his gambling habits. At the start of the novel he is seeking to sell his family property in order to service his creditors although he expects that this will still leave him destitute.
The man he seeks to sell the house to is a priest, Cirillo, who has amassed a small fortune. Unfortunately he has also gained a reputation as someone who possesses mystical powers after he advises a group of brigands who have kidnapped him to pick numbers in the lottery that end up being drawn. As this story becomes more widely known, Cirillo finds himself being hounded and is looking to escape his congregation. He also happens to know that the Baron’s home will make a particularly good investment.
The events of the novel depict the process by which the Baron decides that rather than selling his property he will kill Cirillo and steal the money he will be bringing with him for the sale. The actual murder itself is quite brief and takes place early in the novel. Much of what follows shows the Baron, after an initial run of exceptionally good luck, slowly beginning to mentally disintegrate as an investigation begins and the guilt and fear of discovery builds within him.
Unlike many of the other inverted mystery stories I have read, we see very little of the investigation that will take place. Nor are there really a lot of developments in the case, yet we do see how even a small piece of evidence can end up being used as the basis for a much broader case against someone.
That piece of evidence is the titular priest’s hat – an expensive, brand new hat that Cirillo is wearing for his visit to meet with the Baron and conclude the purchase of the house. In one of the Italian language blog entries I read about this novel, the author describes the hat as a sort of tell-tale heart which I think is a particularly appropriate parallel. The idea of the hat becomes an obsession for the Baron who begins to worry that it is the one piece of evidence he has not accounted for.
The way that fear impacts his decision making is interesting and because the case is quite simple, it is easy to see the role the hat plays in the development of the story. While it seemed clear to me how the novel might conclude, I enjoyed the journey to that point and was interested in precisely what decisions the Baron would make.
While the novel’s cast of supporting characters is kept quite small, several are quite striking characters. I found Cirillo’s backstory to be quite entertaining and I enjoyed and appreciated the sections in which we see the local priest puzzling over the dilemma of what to do about an object he has inadvertently stolen.
Arguably the novel does stretch its material a little during the Baron’s later stages of mental anguish (beginning with the chapter The Orgy, which is far less prurient than its title may suggest), feeling a little heavy-handed, but because the time is taken to emphasize the instability of his life prior to his becoming a murderer I felt that erratic behavior seemed to fit his nature.
While I am not sure that the ending was entirely satisfying from the point of view of concluding the investigation, I felt it pulled the work together thematically in its discussion of how the act of murder would affect the guilty party.
Given my recent run of dud reads, I was pleased that the fiftieth review would be of a title that I found to be both interesting and enjoyable. While the book’s age may make it a curiosity for fans of the inverted mystery, I think it is an enjoyable example of the form in its own right.
Sadly the novel is not easily available in print in English though the highly readable Frederick A. Y. Brown translation has been digitized and made available online by the Bodleian. That translation was written in 1935 and so is still presumably in copyright. My hope is that, with the various small crime-specialist presses digging up more and more lost classics of the genre, someday this might be republished and find its way back into wider circulation in English.