Source: Review Copy (Puskin Vertigo)
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Rope/ Noose
It has been a long time since I have read any Italian crime fiction, so I was glad to receive a copy of Augusto De Angelis’ The Hotel of the Three Roses (1936), which combines both my interests in translated crime fiction and also my love of Golden Age detective fiction, because as I will explore later De Angelis’ novel does include many Golden Age tropes.
The story begins in Milan, December 1919 and the reader is introduced to the disreputable Carlo Da Como, who is behind in his rent, but is so spiteful; ‘doing wrong for its own sake made him happy,’ that he will not allow his sisters to buy his final property from him. Da Como lives at the Hotel of the Three Roses and makes money through playing cards and gambling, preying on certain individuals who have become addicted to the game, but are poor players. He is friends with Vilfredo Engel who also lives at the hotel and he is certainly intrigued by the arrival of the mysterious widow, Maria Alton Ventamini. The first murder happens quickly in the story and is reported in a brilliantly understated way:
‘There was already a body in the hotel, and not a single one of the people… knew it. Or at least no one had admitted to knowing anything.’
Eventually the body is discovered late at night by Stefan Bardi, another guest, who is described as a ‘hunchback.’ It is a traumatic experience for him as he finds the corpse hung up on the stairs to the rooms. Inspector De Vincenzi is called into investigate, though he is not surprised disaster has struck, as previously he had received an anonymous note which rails against the goings on at the hotel. De Vincenzi is sure the writer will be a woman due to the romantic turn of phrase and the perceived ‘hysteria’ over the immoral activities.
However, this is no ordinary case of murder as Douglas Layng, the English murder victim, was killed many hours ago via a stab wound before being strung up. Was Layng’s death a warning to others? De Vincenzi takes a closer look at the guests and his suspicions are aroused when he realises how many of them have come from London, including another elderly couple, who at the start of the investigation, Diana and George Flemington. Why are they insistent on staying here, even after they have been told about the murder? There are also a number of flamboyant dolls, which De Vincenzi sees in the possession of various guests. What is the significance of them? And why are their owners so obsessed by them?
De Vincenzi works through the night to try and find out the truth about this crime, but for various reasons such as fear, gain, vanity and drug addiction, his suspects will not fully reveal all they know. It is not until further deaths occur that the truth behind the crime is disclosed and even then it seems like De Vincenzi is always one move behind the killer. The origins of this crime are rooted in the past, with an impending event in the present day which compels the killer to act in this violent manner. De Vincenzi does solve the case, but at what cost?
In some respects the first murder has some impossible crime/locked room qualities, though this aspect is not the primary focus. De Vincenzi and his team discover that Layng was killed originally in his room, the bed soaked in his blood and the medical examiner suggests that based on rigor mortis of the Layng’s body he was killed in the morning. Yet evidence from the maids and porter suggests not only did they provide Layng with breakfast, they also cleaned his room later in the day and there was no such murderous signs. So how and when did the murder occur? The other killings only have a slight hint of impossibility in that these subsequent victims are killed whilst the police are in possession of the hotel, with guards and officers posted at various points. The locked room/impossible crime aspect really adds to the atmosphere of the story, as the narrative becomes tenser and tenser as the attacks keep happening under De Vincenzi’s nose.
Something I hugely enjoyed about the text was the style of language used and you could tell it was expertly crafted and much credit should go to Jill Foulston who translated it. One of my favourite descriptions is at the very start of the novel when De Angelis describes three women
‘…all of them gripped the handles of their umbrellas in the same way, with the bony fingers of their right hands, as if threatening someone with a club. Their profiles were beaked, their eyes bright and alert, and with those chins and noses they seemed to be cleaving the crowd and the heavy mist of fog and rain. How old they were was anyone’s guess. Age had fossilised their bodies and each was so similar to the others… a person might have thought they were hallucinating, convinced he was seeing the same woman three times in a row.’
I found this to be an evocative piece, as not only do we know what they looked like but we also get a strong sense of their characters, status and their effects on others. I could readily visualise these three women so much so it was a shame they were not more involved in the narrative.
The Hotel of The Three Roses and the Golden Age Tradition
I think stylistically there are a lot of parallels between this novel and what we regard as features of a Golden Age detective novel. This novel has a ‘have a mysterious death at its core’ (Keating, 1999: 186) and there is a ‘closed circle of people’ (Keating, 1999: 186) who suspected of doing the crimes. Moreover, also like Golden Age detective novels there is a sense of characters role-playing, playing a specific part to hide secrets of their own, not all of which are relevant to the case in hand. This also affects their relationship with Inspector De Vincenzi who has a difficult time to get the suspects to open up and reveal what they know. Furthermore, the field for who the killer is, for the majority of the novel, is quite wide as many characters could have had ‘a credible motive [and an] opportunity to commit the crime[s]’ (Keating, 1999: 186). Additionally once the first body has been found the narrative focuses on De Vincenzi’s investigation, which Keating (1999) argues is an important component of Golden Age detective fiction which should have ‘a person who unravels the mystery by logical inference… and this person… must be central to the story’ (Keating, 1999: 186). Furthermore, there is also the usual red herrings and Inspector De Vincenzi does not withhold any information from the reader, so therefore the reader is on a level playing field with the detective and has the same opportunities to make inferences about key pieces of information.
Overall I really enjoyed this book and I will certainly read more of De Angelis’ work. The central mystery was interesting as it had a number of avenues to explore and there was a tense atmosphere as the body count mounts, which is added to by the fact that the action of the novel takes place within 12 hours. Tellingly one of the main reasons De Vincezni wants to solve the case so quickly is that he wants to have solved it before the acting magistrate gets involved the following morning, an action De Vincenzi perceives negatively, as he thinks it will slow down and hamper the investigation. The characters were well created, although I felt Bardi, the hunchback was a bit stereotyped and could have been depicted in a more nuanced way. De Vincenzi is an engaging detective, although a fallible one. His investigation is people focused which I enjoyed and he is a strong believer in the importance of ‘the psychological aspects of the crime.’ Nationality is an important concept in this book, which is reflected in Vincenzi’s own biases, as sometimes he makes assumptions about the guests based on their nationalities, such as taking a dim view of a suspect from Turkey and he also says ‘to himself, for one thing, that the crime could not have been committed by an Italian.’
This is a book I would strongly recommend to readers of both translated crime and Golden Age detective fiction.