Earlier this month I reviewed a nineteenth century Italian crime novel, The Priest’s Hat by Emilio de Marchi. In the comments Kate mentioned that Pushkin Vertigo had republished several novels by the early twentieth century Italian crime novelist Augusto de Angelis. After reading up a little on the author, including Kate’s excellent review of this novel, I decided I would try out the first in the Inspector De Vincenzi series, The Murdered Banker.
The book concerns the murder of a banker within the home of Aurigi, one of De Vincenzi’s old school friends. That friend had come to see him on the night in question after spending several hours walking the streets. In the process of their talk he divulged his precarious financial situation and confessed that he was obliged to pay the banker a sum of money by the end of that evening that he would not be able to meet.
De Vincenzi receives a tip-off about the body and arrives to find the banker shot dead. Curiously there is a vial of poison also in the room while the banker also possesses some documents that will further complicate the case, although as the author holds off on revealing the details of these to the reader for some time I will not explain their significance.
A further complication comes when that suspect’s prospective father-in-law declares that he believes Aurigi is guilty and that his daughter will not marry him. He even takes the step of hiring a private investigator to prove his guilt.
Based on the facts and the attitudes of those closest to him, it seems clear that Aurigi must be guilty and yet the neatness of the case bother De Vincenzi who reasonably questions why, if Aurigi went to such lengths to organize a killing to prevent his ruin, he didn’t find a way to avoid tying himself so blatantly to the crime.
I will confess that I initially struggled a little to adjust to the novel’s rhythm and some of the poetic turns of phrase which sit alongside some much more direct writing. The early chapters reminded me somewhat of the start to Pietr the Latvian, the first Maigret novel, which I admired more than I liked. There is a certain grimness and solitude to those opening chapters and there are some moments in the case where he acts in a way that seems a little underhand or callous, such as how he allows Aurigi to come upon the body with no warning to try to see if he really will be surprised.
I suspect that it didn’t help that some of the complications of the case that add interest are purposefully withheld from the reader for a number of chapters to build tension or to make their revelation more dramatic. While I think the book is still fair play in the sense that the information is revealed before the identity of the killer, it does feel very arbitrary and artificial and I think it detracts a little from the gritty realist tone de Angelis seems to be trying to cultivate at points.
It should also be pointed out that we are dealing with an extremely limited cast of characters. While de Angelis presents us with five suspects in the course of the novel, he almost immediately (and convincingly) rules two of them out of contention and features one so little that you will likely forget we should even be considering them. That leaves us with just two characters to pick from and I think the structure of the narrative makes one candidate much more likely than the other. In short, I don’t think that this is particularly mysterious.
And yet… It is a pretty good story.
The turning point for me was the revelation of the contents of the banker’s pockets. In that moment the story became more complex and intriguing while I became, at least for a time, a little less clear of how things would fit together. From that point onwards the revelations come quite quickly, changing our understanding of the case and helping us to understand several characters’ seemingly erratic behavior. As a result my interest grew considerably.
While the questions of who committed the crime and why are straightforward and ultimately quite predictable, the question of how it was achieved and how they will be caught prove much more intriguing. This is not because the plan is complex but because it is so simple and seemingly foolproof were it not for one detail being overlooked.
There is an element of the resolution that never quite satisfies me – the gambit where the detective, being unable to prove his suspicions through reasoning, seeks to trap the villain in a ruse that will demonstrate their guilt. It is certainly credible in this case that this would work and yet I feel that there is something a little cheap about this sort of resolution. This, combined with the limited pool of suspects, leads me to think that the book is best viewed as an adventure or thriller. The reader can certainly work out many aspects of the case but really this is about the journey and the excitement of seeing how everything will resolve.
Though I cannot claim that my first taste of de Angelis’ work was always to my tastes, it is undoubtedly a very interesting work and I found my appreciation for it grew as it went on. As the novel continued I found I was liking the hero more and more, leaving me hopeful that other books in the series will appeal more consistently to my tastes.
Vintage Mystery Challenge: Death by Shooting (How)