The Murdered Banker by Augusto de Angelis and Jill Foulston (translator)

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The Murdered Banker by Augusto de Angelis and Jill Foulston (translator)

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: JY Saville
Reviewed by JY Saville
Summary: A 1930s Italian crime novel that feels much older. If you like to work out the solution before the detective, you're unlikely to get much satisfaction as it's frustratingly short on police work. Worth reading if you're interested in European literature, however, and the perennial themes of human weakness and tragedy.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 200 Date: February 2016
Publisher: Pushkin Vertigo
ISBN: 978-1782271703

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Inspector De Vincenzi is working against the clock. A body was found in his old school-friend Giannetto Aurigi's apartment in the early hours of this morning and the investigating magistrate wants to take over as quickly as possible. The trouble is, Aurigi owed the dead man money, has been acting strangely, and isn't trying to defend himself. Unless De Vincenzi finds strong evidence to the contrary today, the investigating magistrate will see it as an open and shut case, and that will be the end of Aurigi. But none of the evidence seems to add up.

Set in contemporary Milan, The Murdered Banker was first published in Italy in 1935, the start of what would become a series of twenty Inspector De Vincenzi novels. Despite the decade being one that also contained Agatha Christie's Poirot, Margery Allingham's Campion and Dashiel Hammett's Sam Spade, this feels like a much older world of tradition and hierarchy. Though Milan is a big prosperous city there is a certain amount of mistrust of these new-fangled telephones, for instance, and not every palatial home has one. The style of the novel is also quite different from the lightness of touch you might expect if you're used to British crime novels of a similar period. Although it was as short as an Agatha Christie, The Murdered Banker read like a nineteenth century novel full of philosophy and introspection. It was almost as if Dostoyevsky had tried his hand at a police procedural, realising partway through that he found motivation, star-crossed lovers and dramatic irony far more interesting than mere clues.

Rather than looking for clues, De Vincenzi talks to people and mulls things over, and also does a lot of muttering to his uniformed officers and sending them off on errands, often without the reader knowing what it is he's asked them to do. Because of that and the large number of red herrings, it doesn't seem like a whodunit that the reader could figure out, so if you're looking for a satisfying, tightly-plotted crime novel to puzzle your way through you'll be disappointed. This is more about the story behind the crime - the human relationships and hidden agendas - than about solving the crime itself, though obviously De Vincenzi wants to solve it because he doesn't want to believe that his old friend is a murderer.

As a crime novel it left me unsatisfied as De Vincenzi relies on guesswork and leaps of intuition, with too many things left to chance or just a good guess on his part. He doesn't seem to follow procedure, breaking rules left, right and centre, and the other policemen largely seemed to be walk-on parts that he can use as props. On the back cover a quote says De Vincenzi is 'as humane as Maigret' but I found him harsh and unpredictable, he deals fiercely with suspects and it's not always clear why he's behaving that way. Except for the Epilogue, all the action takes place in less than 24 hours, which might be why I didn't get much of a feel for the time and place. There was no hint at De Vincenzi's home life or the usual rhythm of his police station or working days, though he seems intelligent and apparently likes to read serious books while he's in his office waiting to be called on to look into a crime.

I read a lot of Georges Simenon's Maigret novels when I was younger and I've re-read and enjoyed some recently, but I think The Murdered Banker has dated more than Maigret. De Angelis is widely considered the father of Italian crime writing though, so this is certainly worth a read if you're interested in widening your reading horizons and enjoy old European fiction.

If you want to stick with Italian crime but you fancy more of the traditional detective style you might like the Aurelio Zen novels by Michael Dibdin, a British author who lived in Italy, such as Dead Lagoon which also involves a childhood friend of the detective. Alternatively if you want more translated crime that isn't quite so straightforward, try Argentinian novel The Case of Lisandra P. We also have a review of The Mystery of the Three Orchids by Augusto de Angelis and Jill Foulston (translator).

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