I’m writing this week about two examples of “Noir” crime fiction. On Monday I featured Severe by French writer Régis Jauffret. Today my featured book is an example of Italian Noir, A Private Venus by Giorgio Scerbanenco published by Italian crime fiction specialists, Hersilia Press. Giorgio Scerbanenco (1911-1969) is described in the introduction as “the father of the Italian noir tradtion”.
As well as being a successful magazine editor, Giorgio Scerbanenco was a writer of novels, more prolific than Georges Simenon. In the introduction to A Private Venus, Giuliana Pieri says that Scerbanenco pushed Italian novel writing “towards a new realism and, to borrow a metaphor from the other single most important influence on this genre, gave it the rapid rhythm of a nouvelle vague film which conveyed, on a linguistic and syntactic level, the frenetic pace of the industrialised world and the frenzied tempo of consumer society”.
A Private Venus was first published in 1966. It is set in Milan, a city which, in his novels, Scerbanenco almost created as a capital of crime to rival New York and Los Angeles. As the book opens we meet Duca Lamberti, a doctor newly released from prison having served three years for practising euthanasia on an elderly patient who was begging him to end her life.
Lamberti was struck off the doctor’s register because of his crime and needs to find a job. Through an old contact in the police he is referred to a wealthy plastics engineer, Pietro Auseri who is looking for someone to cure his son of chronic alcoholism. The engineer has tried everything to cure his son, including physical violence, but now;
. . . I’d like to make one last attempt,’ Auseri said, ‘put him together with someone who could be both a friend and a doctor, who’d use any method he wanted to make him stop drinking, who’d stop him physically every minute of the day, even in the toilet. 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.
Duca Lamberti seems to have little option other than to take on this difficult case. The young man, Davide, seems to be completely withdrawn into himself and barely speaks. However, Lamberti discovers that he has only been drinking so heavily for the last year; clearly something traumatic must have happened to him to provoke such a serious reaction. Auseri gives Lamberti a substantial sum of money and the ex-doctor and the young man go off to stay with Lamberti’s sister, where Lamberti begins the therapy which he hopes will give the key which will unlock the secret behind Davide’s predicament.
Before long we discover that Davide is consumed by guilt. He believes that he is responsible for the death of young woman, Alberta Radelli, who he met about a year ago. Alberta killed herself, for reasons unknown, just after she had begged Davide to run away with her. Davide had refused, and the next day, Alberta’s body was discovered in a field with slashed wrists.
Duca Lamberti still has a friend in the police force, Superintendent Luigi Carrua. He visits the policeman’s office and after conferring with him, set’s off to discover the truth behind Alberta’s death. This turns out to be a long and tortuous business, involving prostitution, pornography, and all the usual associated crimes. The author writes in a sparse, matter-of-fact style, revealing no emotion as he hears of the terrible abuses suffered by Alberta and her friends. His investigative methods are highly illegal and no police officer would have been allowed to use them, but Duca is a free-agent with nothing to lose, and his determination to discover the truth drives him on through some very deep waters.
Although the book is 47 years old, the realistic style is very modern, and it was only about half way through that I read the introduction and realised that it was written so long ago. However, some of the social attitudes revealed are definitely last century, including the appearance of a “homosexual” who is described in the most derogatory terms by one of the female characters, and later on by another character. While these passages are at first a little shocking, I am pleased that the translator stuck faithfully to the text before him rather than adapting his English to a more modern age (a debate about “updating” politically incorrect passages is going on to this day in the contexts as varied as Enid Blyton’s Noddy stories and The Bible!).
I have to say I very much enjoyed this book. It’s a very complex read, containing far more sophisticated prose that I had expected from the cover description. Scerbanenco is quite capable of launching off into philosophical descriptions of the nature of crime or entering into deep analysis of the motivations of his characters. He tends to make everyone’s character either black or white but perhaps this is inevitable in a book dealing with the sordid back-streets of Milan. I can well understand what a radical departure from literary norms the author had adopted back in the 1960s. Altogether a fascinating read which Hersilia Press and their translator Howard Curtis did well to bring before an English-language readership.