Venice Noir, edited by Maxim Jakubowski

Originally published in 2012

From the introduction by Maxim Jakubowski:

It’s one of the most famous cities in the world. Immortalized by writers throughout the years, frozen in amber by film and photography, the picturesque survivor of a wild history whose centuries encompass splendor, decay, pestilence, beauty, and never-ending wonders. A city built on water, whose geographical position once saw it rule the world and form a vital crossing point between West and East. A city of merchants, artists, glamour, abject poverty, philosophers, corrupt nobles, refugees, courtesans, and unforgettable lovers, buffeted by the tides of wars, a unique place whose architecture is a subtle palette reflecting the successive waves of settlers, invaders, religions, and short-term rulers . . .

Change in this most curious of cities is something almost imperceptible and invisible to the naked eye. Walking just a few minutes away from the Rialto Bridge, for instance, and losing yourself in backstreets, where the canals and small connecting bridges leave just enough space to pass along the buildings without falling into the water, it’s as if you are stepping into a past century altogether, with no indication whatsoever of modernity. You wade through a labyrinth of stone, water, and wrought-iron bridges, and after dark feel part of another world where electricity isn’t yet invented, a most unsettle feeling nothing can prepare you for . . .”

I have written about a few of the Akashic Noir series on this blog before but Venice Noir marks the first time I have read a volume about a city that I have actually visited myself. While that was a number of years ago (in the mid-nineties), I have some pretty clear memories of that trip and of spending time in the city. Thankfully my experiences were far more positive than those encountered by those visiting the city in most of these stories.

This volume, edited by Maxim Jakubowski, makes the possibly controversial choice to include a number of writers who hail from outside Italy. This was a conscious choice on the part of the editor who suggests in his introduction that it reflects his feeling that ‘Venice belongs to the world’ and it is certainly an interesting one, allowing the collection to see the city both through the eyes of its yearlong inhabitants and those visiting. The contrast between those perspectives and the way the city is seen is one of the most interesting aspects of the collection and, to my surprise, is presented in a largely consistent manner between the various stories.

As I have noted with some of the other collections, the Akashic range adopts a rather broad interpretation of noir allowing for gritty crime stories but also stories that focus on it as an attitude or stylistic choice. This collection is no exception, offering up a range of approaches and styles. There are, for instance, two rather quirky stories told from the perspectives of the city’s biggest population – its rats. While there are some common elements, it is striking how different those two stories are from one another in some of their other features.

Some of the offerings are more serious such as the opening tale, Cloudy Water, which explores a rather unusual criminal enterprise that seems quite specific to its setting. Many of the other stories in the collection similarly emerge from aspects of their setting, making for a rather distinctive collection.

The general standard of writing in the collection is very high though there are several stories that had more limited appeal for me personally either based on characterization or their development of their themes. An example of the latter would be Francesco Ferracin’s The Comedy is Over which is certainly effective in its examination of how a woman’s traumatic experience leads her to seek revenge or Desdemona Undicesima by Isabella Santacroce which has an almost hypnotic quality as the narrator repeatedly revisits moments and ideas in a loop.

More stories hit than miss though and when it gets it right, the results can be really compelling. Perhaps my favorite of the stories is Commissario Clelia Vinci by Barbara Baraldi. This story, which is one of two told from the perspective of a law enforcement officer, is one of the longer efforts and benefits from the time that can be given to exploring the character’s backstory while she works on a difficult murder case. I was particularly struck by the idea that the story explores that the actions of law enforcement can have unintended consequences and I felt that the journey she goes on here was quite powerful.

The other one I really liked was Signor Gauke’s Tongue, which is one of the stories that most strongly features the city as a location. While some aspects of that story could arguably occur anywhere, Mike Hodges peppers their story with references to buildings and their history as well as some of the more notable figures associated with the city. I enjoyed discovering the secrets that story’s protagonist was holding and learning the significance of its title.

The balance of styles, between the humorous and the more serious, is very good. While the stories are grouped together along common themes I never felt that it was repeating itself as I have occasionally with some of the other entries in this series. I appreciate that intention to offer variety and while not every story is a winner, all are readable and interesting.

The Verdict: A very solid and varied collection of stories, most of which utilize its distinctive setting well.

click for individual story reviews

The Bishop’s Bedroom by Piero Chiara, translated by Jill Foulston

Originally published in 1976 as La stanza del Vescovo (Italian)
English translation first published in 2019

Summer 1946. World War Two has just come to an end and there’s a yearning for renewal. A man in his thirties is sailing on Lake Maggiore in northern Italy, hoping to put off the inevitable return to work. Dropping anchor in a small, fashionable port, he meets the enigmatic owner of a nearby villa who invites him home for dinner with his older wife and beautiful widowed sister-in-law. The sailor is intrigued by the elegant waterside mansion, staffed with servants and imbued with mystery, and stays in a guest room previously occupied by a now deceased bishop related to his host. The two men form an uneasy bond, recognizing in each other a shared taste for idling and erotic adventure. But suddenly tragedy puts an end to their revels and shatters the tranquility of the villa.

Typically my process for a book review begins by my jotting down a few words – usually adjectives – that I associate with it. My paper for The Bishop’s Bedroom simply reads: “Short”.

This stems from one of my biggest frustrations – book padding. In this case the digital edition has 183 pages but the actual content ends at page 144. When you consider that the book only begins on page 9 you are left with 135 pages and even that feels generous – the lines of text have been given plenty of room to breathe…

Enough ranting. Let’s talk about the book!

The Bishop’s Bedroom is told from the perspective of a nameless drifter who spends his time sailing around Lake Maggiore. He lives a rather carefree existence, meeting up with women – some of them single, some married – before sailing to another port.

In the early chapters of the book he encounters and befriends Mario Orimbelli who shows an interest in his boat and invites him to stay with him. After meeting Orimbelli’s wife and widowed sister-in-law, Orimbelli arranges to experience life on the water for himself. Of course, it turns out that once away from his wife Orimbelli reveals himself to be completely incapable of controlling his libido…

At this point I probably need to stop summarizing the plot because we are basically already halfway through the book. I can say that you will get a body and the circumstances of the death are not clear yet this is not the sort of book that is interested in giving you answers to what happened. It is really about the journey and the way the events he witnesses affect the narrator.

The Bishop’s Bedroom is perhaps best judged then as a work of literary fiction with genre elements rather than a purely genre work. This is, of course, not a form of complaint. Nor do I think it makes it irrelevant as a topic to cover on this blog. It does mean though that readers in search of a detective novel may want to pass this one by.

It reminds me a lot of Antonioni’s film Blow-up, not only in its questionable celebration of hedonism but also in the way it really explores how uncertainty about an event or their understanding of relationships can really get inside the head of someone and affect them. There are not really clues or much in the way of evidence or testimony yet the reader will come to have a feeling about the death, even if they will never get any confirmation about whether they were right.

Which is, I suppose, the point. The uncertainty is really what matters. Some may find it infuriating but I think it works in the greater context of the novella.

In some other respects I can see similarities with Patricia Highsmith’s work such as the development of the relationship between the protagonist and Orimbelli. While this is in no way a homoerotic relationship as in Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train or The Talented Mr. Ripley, the blend of admiration and repulsion has something of the same flavor.

Neither the narrator, nor Orimbelli however exert anything like the magnetic draw of those characters to the reader, just on the other characters. The entire first half of the novella is spent trawling around Lake Maggiore in search of carefree sexual conquests and both men, for all their claims to recognize women as having freedom, end up treating women like sexual objects or cuts of meat and trying to cajole and maneuver them until they give into their advances.

I will be the first to defend a writer’s decision to create an unlikeable protagonist – just look at my reviews of various Jim Thompson novels – but that character must have some complexity or be making some deeper commentary about society or humanity. Chiara’s character may change but not enough to make him an interesting or compelling protagonist to follow.

Still it is hard to deny that the author does succeed in making other aspects of the journey seem appealing, evoking a sense of place and carefreeness and of simply being on the water. While I found the angst about Orimbelli stealing “his” women a bit tiresome, I can say that the second half of the book does improve and it does have something to say about postwar Italian society and of the consequences of disengagement from the world around us.

Unfortunately it is not enough for me to feel like I can recommend this. The most interesting characters in the piece are the two women in Orimbelli’s life and they barely appear. Sadly the time spent with the men seemed as slow and aimless as the lives they chose to lead. Overall, I think this was just not for me.

The Verdict: More a work of literary fiction than a genre piece being neither mysterious nor suspenseful. Sadly it didn’t work for me.

Game for Five by Marco Malvaldi, translated by Howard Curtis

Originally Published as La briscola in cinque in 2007
English translation published in 2014
Bar Lume #1
Followed by Three-Card Monte

I think most readers have experienced a reading rut at some time. There are times when the books themselves are to blame but I don’t think that was the case with me this time. I just felt picky and nothing seemed to be able to hold my attention. Fortunately Game for Five came along at just the right time and managed to pull me out of my reading funk.

The novel is the first in a series set around a bar in rural Italy. The mystery itself is not particularly complex and the investigation is rather superficial. It is however quite light and frothy with the occasional dark or bitter undertone, much like the cappuccinos our hero will refuse to sell most of his customers (it is too hot to run the coffee machine).

The story begins with a drunken student discovering the body of a young woman inside a bin. The bar happens to be nearby and so he uses the phone to call the police, alerting barman Massimo to what is going on.

His initial involvement in the story is to confirm some aspects of the case and to engage in gossip with elderly regulars, a group of four pensioners he plays cards with. He feels pulled into the case however when he speaks with the sister of the police’s suspect, a besotted boy she had arranged to meet but apparently stood up. He comes to believe that some of the details of the crime scene simply don’t tally with the investigator’s version of events and so he begins to ask some questions himself…

Massimo’s investigative style is somewhat relaxed, taking the form of chit-chat and gathering gossip rather than conducting interrogations or gathering hard evidence. That strikes me as appropriate given his profession and certainly I think it would be hard to make any other approach fit his character. It does mean however that the details of the investigation can feel a little hazy and some readers may feel that he never really proves his theory, rather he works to invalidate the alternatives. I wouldn’t personally go that far but I think that this may not be the best fit for those who read mysteries primarily for the puzzles.

Massimo’s bar is frequented by a group of retired men who form a sort of club, trading little gibes at each other and talking over parts of the case. They end up serving as a mixture of sounding board and Baker Street Irregulars, gathering gossip for him and helping him work through his ideas. I enjoyed the interactions they share and I thought that Malvaldi uses them well to provide us with some of the background concerning the victim and her lifestyle. In addition to serving the mystery plot, they also provide some moments of comedy as they make nuisances of themselves in his bar.

Malvaldi peppers his story with lots of literary references, commenting on the books Massimo is reading. This not only helps to establish his character, it can often be quite amusing and well-observed as we hear his musings on the likes of Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. For instance, there is one glorious page where we get references to Agatha Christie, Rex Stout and The Bangles.

Given the lighthearted tone Malvaldi gives his story and its rural Italian setting you may wonder why the publisher describes the work as World Noir. Is it a piece of lazy labeling designed to help shift copies? Certainly a few Goodreads reviewers seem to think so.

I don’t think labels are all that important but if forced to make a ruling I would say that it lacks the stylistic touches and elements most would think of as noir but it does possess the attitude and outlook on human nature. It has moments of cynicism, albeit they are typically presented here for laughs. I would counsel you not to approach this expecting it to fit labels – Malvadi is really doing his own thing here and it is as much a light comedy and portrait of village life as it is a crime story.

Though I have suggested above that the mystery is quite slight in the way it is plotted, I should confess to being surprised by some elements of the conclusion in spite of the very small pool of suspects. I think the choice of killer was clever and while the motive is not particularly thrilling and a few parts of the resolution did not strike me as being fully clued (the evidence that will prove the case for instance), I thought it was a clever solution that did a good job of making sense of the situation.

It is, in my opinion, a fairly solid mystery, albeit one that lacks thrills but it is one I found highly entertaining. I really enjoyed the characters Malvaldi creates, particularly the group of regulars in the bar, and I think he captures some of the teasing and prodding that can build up among a group of friends who know each other well. I had little difficulty believing in that group of characters and I enjoyed their interactions enormously whether they were talking about the case or bickering about the foods their doctors allowed them to eat.

I certainly plan on returning to pick up the second in the series, the only other title so far to be published in English translation. It is a fun, fast read with entertaining characters. I liked the idea of setting a series around a bar and will be curious how future volumes manage to bring the action to Massimo.

Perhaps most important of all though, it broke me out of my reading funk. It was the book I needed at the time I needed it and since finishing it I feel I have some of my reading mojo back. For that I am immensely grateful.

The Murdered Banker by Augusto de Angelis, translated by Jill Foulston

The Murdered Banker
Augusto de Angelis
Originally Published 1935
Commissario De Vincenzi #1
Followed by Sei donne e un libro

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)

The Priest’s Hat (Il Cappello del Prete) by Emilio De Marchi, translated by Frederick A. Y. Brown

The Priest’s Hat
Emilio de Marchii
Originally Published 1887

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.