Reviewed by Victoria
Pushkin Vertigo, the new crime imprint from Pushkin Press has got off to a flying start with its first batch of releases. Not surprisingly, perhaps, when you learn that Piero Chiara was the winner of more than a dozen literary prizes in his native Italy, and Leo Perutz was greatly admired by Graham Greene, Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. I found both of these novels to be ingenious works of crime fiction, very different in style and manner, but equally fiendish.
The Disappearance of Signora Guilia, written in 1970 and recently translated by Jill Foulston, begins as a classic missing person case. Detective Sciancalepre has long worked in the small town of M- in Northern Lombardy and he knows its inhabitants well. He is surprised, then, when the wealthy lawyer, Esengrini, comes to visit him. Esengrini is a highly respected resident of the town, an intelligent and successful criminal lawyer and former mayor. If Esengrini has a weak spot, it is his much younger wife who ‘treated him like an old uncle’ and who has put their 15-year-old daughter in a weekly boarding school in Milan, somewhat against her father’s wishes. Now it turns out that Esengrini’s wife, the Signora Guilia, has gone missing. Every Thursday she catches the two o’clock train to Milan to visit their daughter and perform a few chores. This Thursday, however, her room shows signs of rushed packing and Guilia has not returned. Two suitcases have gone with her, but no one saw her leave. The gardener, Demetrio, who also works as a secretary for the lawye,r would have seen her had she left by the front door, and so Esengrini deduces that she left through the courtyard at the back where someone met her with a car at the garden gate.
He also confesses to Sciancalepre that he has been suspicious of his wife’s behaviour for a while, upset by her lack of affection towards him, and has had her followed in Milan. There she regularly meets a young, handsome engineer who worked in the local harbour for a while, and with whom her husband imagines she is having an affair. When Sciancalepre interviews him, however, it seems clear that no such thing happened. The engineer suggests there was someone in her life, but is sorry to say it was not him. Intriguingly, all the leads in the case go cold and several years must pass before a chain of events prove to Sciancalepre that no one is quite what he or she seems. This has a properly excellent ending if, like me, you don’t mind being denied absolute closure.
Master of the Day of Judgment is a very different sort of beast. First published in Austria in 1921 and translated here by Eric Mosbacher, this story has the sort of febrile, fretful energy and claustrophobic setting that makes me think of Arthur Schnitzler. Or perhaps, if you called Perutz a Viennese Edgar Allen Poe, you wouldn’t be too far off the mark.
So, 1909 in Vienna, an awkward group of people gather together to play chamber music by Beethoven and Schubert. Eugen von Bischoff, a celebrated actor, and his wife, Dina, are the hosts. Dina’s brother, Felix, is there, an original angry young man, and they are joined by an older friend Dr Gorski, and the protagonist who narrates the story to the reader, Baron von Yosch, melancholy and bitter because his affair with Dina has come to an end. Their afternoon is interrupted by the arrival of Felix’s colleague, an engineer who rejoices in the name of Waldemar Solgrub. At first the atmosphere is spiky because the Baron suspects Solgrub of having replaced him in Dina’s affection, and the two men spar verbally a little. But then the mood shifts to melancholy again, this time embodied by Eugen Bischoff who tells them all a distressing story about a young man he recently met who was determined to account for his brother’s suicide. But just as he seems to have solved the mystery, he commits suicide himself too, leaving behind only one word scrawled on a piece of paper: ‘dreadful…’ .
Unnerved by this story, the group attempt to cheer Bischoff up by persuading him to deliver some of his lines from Richard III, a new production in which he stars. Bischoff agrees, but first rushes out to his summer house in the garden to prepare. A short while later, shots ring out from the garden, and Bischoff is discovered, dead.
Felix instantly accuses the Baron von Yosch of being the moral perpetrator of this crime if not the actual one, because of his affair with Dina, which must have unsettled the balance of the actor’s mind. In the code of conduct between men at the start of the 20th century, Felix now declares that the Baron must put things right by shooting himself. But Waldemar Solgrub intervenes, refusing such an explanation. Instead, he sees in Eugen Bischoff’s actions an uncanny repeat of the suicide story he had just told them. He insists that a strange, otherworldly killer is on the loose, one that can make men take their lives with no warning. And with Felix’s moral judgement hanging over the Baron, the men begin a desperate and dangerous investigation that puts them all at risk. This was an intense, strange, inventive and very, very cunning piece of fiction. I just love all that overheated 20th-century expressionism and found this quite hypnotic. The sort of story that Sherlock Holmes might have narrated after a bit too much opium.
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
If you like the stylish covers of these books – Victoria interviews their designer in our BookBuzz section here.
Piero Chiara, The Disappearance of Signora Guilia (Pushkin Vertigo: London, 2015). 978-1782271048, 128 pp., paperback.
Leo Perutz, Master of the Day of Judgment (Pushkin Vertigo, London, 2015). 978-1782271529, 160 pp., paperback.