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.

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)