Monday, May 5, 2014

A Private Venus by Giorgio Scerbanenco (1966, Italian; 2012, Hersilia Press)

Milan, 1966, and Dr. Duca Lamberti has recently been released from prison having served three years for assisted euthanasia.  Through his father’s old contacts in the police force he is hired by an industrialist to try and get his alcoholic son dry.  Lamberti knows that the only way the young man will remain sober is if he determines and solves the reason why he drinks.  Slowly he draws Davide out of his shell.  What he discovers is a misplaced sense of guilt and a terrible secret about the death of a young woman that can only be excised by ensnaring elements of an international network of criminals.  A task that Lamberti is quite happy to perform despite its inherent risks.

A Private Venus is considered the initiator novel of Italian noir and was the first book in a set of four featuring Dr Duca Lamberti, a medical practioner who has been struck off after serving time for assisting an old woman to die rather than suffer a painful decline.  In this first book, Lamberti is finding his feet after leaving prison.  He reluctantly takes on the job of trying to dry out the depressed son of a millionaire.  Rather than attempt to stop Davide drinking, Lamberti lets him continue, hoping that he’ll tell him the reason why he drinks whiskey like water.  The story that he eventually reveals - of a young woman who begs to be hidden, whom Davide leaves on the side of the road and is found dead shortly after, having supposedly slashing her own wrists - has enough intrigue and inconsistencies that Lamberti sets out to investigate with the help of Livia Ussaro, a feminist sociologist determined to improve the lives of women in Italian society, who has intimate knowledge of the city’s networks of vice.  The strength of the novel is it’s plotting and characterisation.  Whilst the story is quite slow at first, Scerbanenco carefully and evocatively sets the scene, moves the various pieces into position, and hooks the reader’s attention.  Like Sjowall and Wahloo, who published their first Beck novel in 1965, there is a strong degree of social realism in the writing, with no melodrama or unlikely plot twists.  This is aided by Lamberti’s world weariness, Davide’s despair and self-delusion, and Livia’s idealism and determination.  The result is an interesting and engaging read that has dark undertones with hints of light.

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