Translated by Lucy Greaves
Reviewed by Gill Davies
Thanks to Shiny – and the publishers – I am discovering and enjoying new crime writers. The latest one is the Argentine Maria Angelica Bosco who I had never heard of but whose work is well known and admired in Argentina. Death Going Down is reprinted in a new translation by Lucy Greaves for Pushkin Press who are planning more. The publishers say that “Pushkin Press was founded in 1997, and publishes novels, essays, memoirs, children’s books—everything from timeless classics to the urgent and contemporary. Our books represent exciting, high-quality writing from around the world…. Pushkin Press publishes the world’s best stories, to be read and read again.” It was quite a bold decision to publish Bosco and I do hope that crime fiction fans will try her.
Bosco has been described as the Argentine Agatha Christie but I think this is a selling point rather than an accurate description. The novel was first published in 1955 and it conforms to some of the conventions of the whodunnit. But, unlike Christie, Bosco also seems to want to expose some truths about her contemporary society under cover of the mystery. Bosco is critical of many of her characters, foregrounding their misogyny, laziness, or selfishness and positioning them quite carefully in their class (and sometimes national) identity. Thus, this novel is quite innovative for its date in its take on classical crime writing.
The title refers to a woman’s body discovered in a lift in an apartment building in the wealthy middle class area of Buenos Aires. It seems like a classic whodunnit: who is the woman? how did she get there? who was she visiting? was she even murdered or did she kill herself? The setting introduces a wide range of characters with potentially dubious backgrounds. It also permits strange encounters and movement across the city, exposing secrets that extend round the world and include recent history.
Soler, the man who finds the body is a drunk and a womaniser. Also living in the building are the harsh and arrogant German expatriate Boris Czerbo who lives with his sister who acts as his housekeeper and to whom he is cruel and vicious. With the murder, he senses “the bitter taste of the past being churned up”. There is Dr Luchter, also a resident, who inexplicably looks through the victim’s handbag and may have secrets of his own. There is a caretaker and his nosy wife. And to round off the cast of shifty and unpleasant characters there’s an invalid with a flighty daughter and a second wife who used to be the nursemaid. The investigation is carried out in an understated way by Detectives Ericourt and Blasi. They too follow a conventional pattern but are not perhaps as idealised as the classic detective figure in English and American Golden Age crime. Ericourt is older and experienced, somewhat taciturn, with idiosyncratic methods; Blasi is his young assistant. Their role in the novel is of course to find the murderer, but it is also a way of exposing the darker pasts and unsavoury secrets of most of the characters. Ericourt’s methods are occasionally described by the narrator, but we mostly learn via indirection. He reveals his thinking after the event, in contrast with Blasi (and others) who tend jump to conclusions. Ericourt, like all great classical detectives, is ingenious and always ahead of the game, even when the reader thinks that nothing is really being resolved. The narrative adopts his point of view at several points to show him puzzling out the clues.
Compared with contemporary crime fiction, Bosco like Christie has no interest in actual police procedures. Despite Bosco’s interest in social and cultural types, this is not realism or naturalism. For example, she quickly dismisses the routines of police work describing the forensic back-up team as getting on with “their nosy search of the past. … the men whose job it was to construct an event outside its real place time unleashed a chain of possibilities: climbing of walls, forced locks, fingerprints, footprints. Clues blossomed on powdered surfaces.” Crimes are solved by intuition and intellect, not by routine work.
As the investigation progresses, further crimes are committed and further puzzles introduced: “We started with one death and now we’ve got three deaths and a disappearance.” There is a murder that may be suicide; a second murder; another suicide; blackmail; adultery; deception. All is of course revealed by the end and every mystery is solved. But what remained for me was a question: what to make of its setting? It is set immediately after the end of World War 2. It includes German emigres, recently settled in the city, as did so many fleeing Nazis. It’s not apparently a “serious” political novel but it makes clear that the secrets below the surface are more than the business of literary games. For me this added an intriguing dimension to the whodunnit plot. Everyone in the novel has a secret whether a Nazi past, betrayal and adultery, or private revenge. This is mixed with some humour, social satire and other mystery conventions that tend to distance the reader and reinforce a sense of detachment and unreality. The climax of this comes with the finale of the novel when the detective re-stages the crime with the participation of all the major characters in order to reveal the villain. I felt a little bit uneasy about the mixing of serious history and trivial fictional exercises – but I suspect that Bosco went on in later novels to resolve this tension. This was her first novel and it seems that she went on to be bolder in her treatment of contemporary issues and found a way of integrating them into a crime fiction format. Still, this was an entertaining and enjoyable read – see what you think of it!
Maria Angelica Bosco, Death Going Down (Pushkin Vertigo, 2016). 978-1782272236, 151pp., paperback.
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