Italian Classic Crime: Death in a Bookstore (1936) by Augusto De Angelis

It has been over two years since I have read any of De Angelis’ (1888-1944) work, so I was very pleased when another of his mysteries had been translated into English. It is fascinating to now be able to read more non-British and American vintage crime fiction, especially from writers who were striving to do more than imitate British and American prototypes. Although I do think it is striking that Carolyn Wells published Murder in the Bookshop in the same year, as the title being discussed today was.

De Angelis wrote more than 20 books, though they were not all mystery novels. Joshua Sinclair writes the informative introduction that this reprint comes with and is in fact one of De Angelis’ grandsons, on his mother’s side. He shares with us the interesting life that his grandfather led. He was a vocal opponent of the Italian Fascist government and did not pull his punches when he interviewed Mussolini three times. Sadly in 1944, his political stance led to his arrest and after being released, was ‘beaten to death by Fascists’ in a café. It is not known exactly how much involvement the government had in this event.

However, Sinclair declares that ‘Augusto De Angelis, the creator of Inspector De Vincenzi, is, without question, the most important Italian mystery writer in the first half of the twentieth century’ and it is Inspector De Vincenzi, which is De Angelis’s ‘most enduring legacy.’ Sinclair goes on to write that:

‘Before Inspector De Vincenzi, Italian mystery authors had imported stock characters from foreign detective traditions. But De Angelis wanted something unique, something truly Italian. He considered the reliance on foreign tropes to be absurd. “I wanted and I want to create an Italian detective novel.  They say that we lack the detectives, we lack the policemen and the gangsters.  It may well be!  In any case, it seems to me that we don’t lack crimes.  Don’t forget that this is the land of the Borgias, the Popes and Queen Giovanna.”’

I really enjoyed how this introduction also looks at the Fascist Italian Government’s attitude towards crime fiction in general. General opprobrium soon turned into the ‘eventual outright prohibition on – any depiction of society that did not echo their version of perfect order and justice.’ So, in 1943 orders were given for all ‘detective novels [to] be seized and destroyed.’ Franca De Angelis, Augusto De Angelis’s daughter, goes on to explain that:

‘Mussolini never loved the police procedural genre, he always looked at it with suspicion, and at a certain point he began to actively persecute it.  What are the reasons for this marked dislike?  First of all, in the eyes of the exponents of the regime, this literary genre encouraged the corruption of moral conventions, especially those of young readers: in the detective novels, in fact (according to Mussolini) good and evil became moral categories a bit too interchangeable and very frequently authority was mocked and virtue questioned.  Not to mention the fact that the culprits were often captivating and likable characters. . . So the detective novels, more or less consciously, ended up sowing the seeds of delinquency in the mind (in Mussolini’s words!) and for this reason their diffusion was not to be encouraged, indeed, had to be impeded in every way!’

Today’s Milan-set read begins with a road sweeper finding a parcel on the church doorsteps, with a note saying it should be handed in to a police station. He is reluctant to make the delivery, fearing extensive questioning. But eventually he does, and it lands on the desk of Flying Squad police Inspector De Vincenzi…

Inside is a doctor’s white coat and four surgical instruments. Soon afterwards a woman rings the station but hangs up before communicating with the inspector. Later that day, catching up on sleep after his night shift, Inspector De Vincenzi is abruptly awoken to attend a crime scene, a murder in a bookshop. The victim is Professor Magni, a well-respected physician and surgeon, yet he has been shot in the back of the head twice. So maybe not so well liked? Immediately questions are asked about how the man got into the bookshop during the night when it is was shut. The victim’s wife is also acting strangely, boldly stating that her husband is in his bedroom, when she is first telephoned by the police. Is she covering up something incriminating or is she trying to save face, fearing some scandal has erupted due to her spouse’s many infidelities? And was it this latter that contributed towards the crime’s motive, with robbery having been ruled out? The first half of the book watches Inspector De Vincenzi verbally duelling with his suspects, who all try to parry his searching and probing questions. The clues begin to pile up, including a missing book from the bookshop. But it will take a great deal of thought before De Vincenzi can put them in their proper place. This is the case which will make or break his career and it seems like someone is keen to push his investigation in a certain direction…

Overall Thoughts

Long before P. D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh arrived on the literary scene, there was Inspector De Vincenzi, who is not only identified as a philosophical detective by his readers, but he also identifies this in himself, contemplating how his desire for expression made him ‘end […] up becoming a police inspector to find it!’

This more meditative side to him also appears in his sleuthing technique, as when musing on how he goes about solving crimes he says:

‘“Do you believe in the perfect crime?” “Yes, I do. And I want to find the perpetrator, using his—or her!— own means. But this makes no sense to you. When everything is over, I’ll show you that the only way to come up with something, this time, is to act as if the crime were a clock to disassemble. The perpetrator has created an impeccable machine. . .  all the wheels are in their place. . .  the balance wheel is on the jewels. . .  every little gear matches, tooth against tooth. The murderer is an artist! An inventor, even a genius! Well, in order to find the factory brand, we have to disassemble the device, going back over the work of its author and removing wheel after wheel. . .  gear after gear.’

For him the psychological aspect of the case is very important, and it frequently influences his decisions as to whether someone is guilty or not, much to the chagrin of his superior. Yet this does not mean he overlooks or avoids usual police procedure, especially since it is through his interviews with the suspects and witnesses that he can begin to get a sense of who they are. This is also an enjoyable period for the reader as exposing his suspects’ many lies becomes a bit of a competition: ‘That’s De Vincenzi 1, Dr. Verga 0, thought De Vincenzi.’ Whilst De Vincenzi prioritises psychological clues, alibis and facts are still present, including some physical clues which refuse to fit in with any of his theories. The case is also developed further by a second killing.

I think the key issue with this story is that it reveals the identity of the culprit slightly too soon, as whilst the reader manages to latch onto the correct killer and motive, De Vincenzi has some way to go towards announcing and proving it and the final third needed a little trimming to pick up the pace a bit. Interestingly De Angelis uses a device found in Agatha Christie’s earlier title Peril at End House, which makes me wonder how much access he had to non-Italian fiction. There is also a very enjoyable use of a red herring and out of the four De Angelis titles I have read I think this novel has the most complicated and intricate case. Trying De Angelis’ work is a definite must for the classic crime fan, as I think there is much to be gained from reading vintage mystery fiction from a different culture/country.

Rating: 4.25/5

Source: Review Copy (Kazabo Publishing)

4 comments

  1. Happy to see another De Angelis book available in English. I just ordered this and two others from this under-the-radar American based publisher. Though I do recall reading one of your reviews of a Kazabo book a while back (Man in the Cellar) I never made a note of the types of English translated crime fiction they were publishing. So I made up for that in one fell swoop last night when I saw you were about to post this review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yay! Did you get The Final Days of Abbot Montrose? If not then you need to!
      There is also a medium/spiritualist angle to the De Angelis book, which might appeal to your reading interests.
      I look forward to seeing what you make of the Kazabo books you’ve bought.

      Like

      • Yes! I bought the book reviewed here, FINAL DAYS…, and MAN IN THE CELLAR. I decided to skip the other one because I already own a vintage volume of the Rosenkrantz stories. Still have yet to read any of them. What else is new?

        Liked by 1 person

      • The De Angelis is the newest release. I think there were some delays getting it out. Final Days is my favourite from them so far as it is strong from a stylistic and plotting point of view. The only other title that you haven’t mentioned is The Adventures of Dagobert Trostler by Balduin Groller, though the mystery aspect of these stories is probably the weakest out of all the titles released so far. So it might not be one to rush to.
        I’m excited though to see what they will bring out in 2020.

        Like

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