Written by Giorgio Scerbanenco – Giorgio Scerbanenco was an important figure in postwar Italian crime fiction, but is little known to English-speaking audiences because his novels were never translated into English. Hersilia Press is seeking to rectify our ignorance of Scerbanenco and other Italian crime fiction by translating and releasing English editions of notable Italian works. A Private Venus, Scerbanenco’s first Duca Lamberti novel, is both a fine mystery and a welcome addition to our understanding of crime fiction in Italy.
A Private Venus is set in 1966 Milan. Duca Lamberti needs a job, as he has just finished a three-year sentence in prison. A former physician, Lamberti euthanized a patient who was dying anyhow, and had begged for a lethal injection. Lamberti complied, and now his first post-prison task is to help an industrialist’s alcoholic son stop drinking.
Lamberti is not a detective, but his father was. The elder Lamberti passed on an incisive set of instincts to his son. And now Duca Lamberti knows that Davide, the engineer’s son, has a reason for drinking so excessively. Lamberti just needs to find out what that reason is.
Davide soon reveals that he thinks he killed a woman. Davide picked up a prostitute two years prior to Lamberti’s intervention. She begged Davide to take her away from Milan for several months, but refused to say why. He didn’t understand why the young lady, Alberta Radelli, was so anxious to get away, and practicality dictated not running away for a three-month vacation with a woman he had just met. So Davide and Alberta went their separate ways, and the next Davide heard of her was in the newspaper.
Alberta’s death was an apparent suicide, and Davide blamed himself for not helping her. Duca finds the circumstances surrounding Alberta’s suicide to be suspicious. He thinks it odd that she would slash her wrists in the middle of a field – especially since no blade was found near her body. What’s more, Davide has a small cartridge of film that Alberta left in his car. When developed by the police, it reveals pornographic pictures of Alberta and another young woman. It turns out that the other young woman died several days before Alberta. Her death was also an apparent suicide; she drowned in Rome.
Duca and his police friends are convinced that both deaths were caused by organised crime, not suicide. Duca is also convinced that he must find out what happened to Alberta if he is to help Davide. To do this, Lamberti needs to find the pornographer, and the kidnapping ring that has already murdered twice. But the mobsters want to keep their prostitution ring in business. They also want the film that Alberta Radelli took two years earlier.
Duca Lamberti must confront ruthless opponents in A Private Venus, and he has a few hard edges himself. Hersilia Press bills this novel as ‘the first Duca Lamberti noir’. I am not familiar with crime fiction classifications in Italy, but A Private Venus seems to fit into the hardboiled subgenre more than noir. The plot is reminiscent of The Big Sleep, and Duca is a Chandleresque figure: unafraid on mean streets, but not himself mean. The relatively happy ending would certainly be out of place when compared with noir such as James M Cain or Jim Thompson.
Scerbanenco takes his time developing the plot, spending much of the early novel exploring the relationship between Duca and Davide. He’s adept at conveying the cautious but upright Duca Lamberti, the guilt-wracked Davide and other characters. Alberta’s friend Livia is an unusually progressive and opinionated young woman – the author sketches her winsomely, though one detects a note of authorial impatience with Livia’s arguments. Scerbanenco is not what we would now call politically correct, referring to a homosexual villain as ‘the mutant’ numerous times.
These caveats aside, Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus is a gem unearthed by Hersilia Press. Scerbanenco gives readers a vivid portrait of Milan’s seamy underbelly. Duca enters A Private Venus as a man trying to survive out of prison. But he has depths of understand and toughness that even he does not realise. Scerbanenco reveals Duca Lamberti to us; in doing so, he also unveils the Italian hardboiled hero.
This fine edition by Hersilia Press includes an introduction by Guiliana Pieri. This is somewhat informative, but mostly superfluous. Also included at the end of the book is a short autobiographical essay entitled I, Vladimir Scerbanenco. The Ukraine-born had a Russian father and Italian mother, and would use his middle name, Giorgio. The essay is a fine piece of writing. In terse but vulnerable prose, it provides a fascinating portrait of the man who wrote A Private Venus.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars