Hersilia Press, 2012 (UK)
originally published in 1966 as Venere Privata
translated by Howard Curtis
My Italian crime section of the Eurocrime shelves is rapidly expanding, and I'm happy to welcome Giorgio Scerbanenco to my list of new authors. Of course, Scerbanenco isn't new on the scene of Italian crime fiction, but he's new to me and I hope that the powers that be at Hersilia will consider publishing more of his books. A Private Venus is the first of a series featuring Dr. Duca Lamberti, a physician who at the start of this novel has just been released from prison. Lamberti was sent away for three years for helping a terminally ill patient to die with some amount of dignity and free her from her terrible pain. Now he's back and has been taken on by Auseri, a wealthy engineer, to help his son Davide who just the year before had started drinking heavily. Davide, according to his father, is a "big lump" and a hopeless drinker -- he would like Lamberti to act as his son's friend and doctor and use any means available to help his son get back to normal. As he notes to Lamberti,
"I don't care if it takes a year, or what means he uses, he could even beat him to death, I'd rather he was dead than an alcoholic."Lamberti is hesitant, but because of the needs of single-mother sister and her daughter, decides he will take the job. After some time with Davide, he begins to realize that the young man is not an alcoholic, but rather that something traumatic lies at the root of his drinking problem. After some time together, Lamberti brings Davide with him to visit his father's grave, and as Lamberti expresses his sadness, Davide reveals that he would like to visit a grave as well, but he doesn't know where it might be. Lamberti tells Davide that all he has to do is to go to the office with the name of the person and they would help him locate the grave. Out of nowhere, the dam in Davide's troubled psyche begins to burst in a most unexpected way and he reveals that the grave belongs to "woman I killed last year. Her name was Alberta Radelli."
Davide's revelation turns out to be not that of a murderer, although he has taken personal responsibility for the death of Alberta Radelli, a prostitute who one year earlier had been found dead by the roadside, wrists slashed in an apparent suicide. But the police who investigated her death had never found any sort of sharp instrument that might have done the trick. But Davide isn't finished. He also happens to have saved something that Alberta left in his car after he'd picked her up and then later made her get out -- a small film cartridge that came from a Minox camera. The photos left behind are of two women, one of them Davide, in various poses, naked. The police restart their investigation into Alberta's death, but who is the second woman? How will they ever find out who was really responsible for Alberta's supposed suicide? What is behind it all? Lamberti begs to "play policeman," and promises Davide that when they find the guy who killed her, he will be able to take his revenge. What Lamberti doesn't realize is that once he starts getting answers, he has already stepped on a path which will take him into a sordid world of darkness, from which for some there is no escape.
Written in 1966, much of the action is pretty tame for today's more jaded readers of modern crime fiction (such as myself) who are used to in-depth visual imagery and some pretty horrific descriptions of violence that turn up in current crime novels, but the impact of this story is just as potent as any modern-day author could hope to establish. Much like the main character Lamberti, the novel is simultaneously edgy and intense, especially in its exploration of human nature. Lamberti's personal views of morality express themself in this passage, which, incidentally, seem to apply to today in some cases:
"Society is a game, right? The rules of the game are written in the civil code, and in another imprecise, unwritten code called the moral code. They may be debatable codes, and have to be constantly updated, but either you keep to the rules, or you don't. The only person breaking the rules of the game that I can respect is the bandit with his rifle hiding in the mountains: he doesn't keep to the rules of the game, but then he makes it quite clear he doesn't want to play in good society anyway and that he'll make his own rules as he wants, with his rifle. But not swindlers, no, I hate and despise them. These days there are bandits with lawyers in attendance, they cheat, they rob, they kill, but they've already worked out a line of defence with their lawyer in case they're found out and put on trial, and they never get the punishment they deserve. They want others to keep to the game, to the rules, but not themselves. I don't like that, I can't stand these people, just knowing they're near, just smelling them, sets my nerves on edge."And because this novel was written in 1966, today's political correctness was not employed in writing as it is today, so there are references to a homosexual character as a "pederast," or a "mutant;" women in the city can be "prone" to prostitution that should not be judged in modern terms.
This is only the first book in this series, so if A Private Venus is any indication, there are even better times to come with this author. The dark that lives in men's souls is a prominent feature in this novel, so if you want happy endings or lighthearted crime, this may not be your best choice. But if this doesn't bother you, or like me intrigues you, you should definitely give it a go.
** there are 250 pages of A Private Venus; the remainder of the book is a short autobiographical sketch by the author which is also well worth reading.
#5 read, 2013 International Dagger eligible novels