Book review: Death in August by Marco Vichi

Death in August
by Marco Vichi
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
Hodder & Stoughton, 2011.

I am always happy to try any novel that has been translated by Stephen Sartarelli or Don Bartlett. Even though Death in August did not seem to me to be a book I’d usually pick up, the translator and the lovely cover conspired to make me try it. And it is quite good, though not nearly as good as the cream of Italian crime fiction epitomised by, for example, Andrea Camilleri or Gianrico Carofiglio.

The plot is both simple and slightly strange. Set in the mid-1960s, the book is about Inspector Bordelli of the Florence police. He’s at work during August, when the city is blistering hot and almost everyone is on holiday. At the start of the book he has two encounters which are rather clunky: one is a set-to with his boss (who is absent for the rest of the book) about Bordelli’s habit of letting poor thieves get away with their crimes because they only steal out of need; and the other is with a young recruit from Sicily, whom Bordelli soon identifies as the son of an old comrade in arms from World War Two. Bordelli becomes a mentor to the young man, and when a puzzling crime crosses his desk (or rather, wakes him in a late-night/early morning phone call), Bordelli asks him to assist.

The case is that of an old, wealthy woman who has stopped answering her door. Her companion is very worried about her, so contacts the police. Bordelli goes to her grand house in the hills above the city to investigate, and finds her dead body lying in bed. At first it seems as if she has died of a severe asthma attack, but soon it is apparent that the death could not have been natural. Bordelli has to address this puzzling mystery to try to work out how anyone could have killed the old lady without keys or access to the house. In the process he meets her eccentric brother and her two nephews and their wives.

Much of the book is not about the actual investigation, but concerns Bordelli’s reflections on his past. He recalls a maid of his family who initiated him into sex (rather yukky!), and thinks a lot about his experiences fighting the Nazis in the war. Here I parted company with the book somewhat, for although the war dominates a lot of Bordelli’s thinking (as is natural for a novel about a veteran of that conflict set in the 1960s), the Italian army is simplistically portrayed as a principled, brave fighter of Nazism. The truth, of course, is that Italy was on the other side (under Mussolini) until the liberation of Rome in 1944, and given that the war ended in 1945 I did not like the way this history was brushed under the carpet*. (At least the author did not make Bordelli an ex-Navy officer, an Italian war hero of that service would have been stretching it a tad too far ;-) .)

The crime itself is firmly in the Agatha Christie mould. There are a small number of suspects, and Bordelli’s main task is to work out how one (or more) of them could have done it. When he has a flash of inspiration after a very drunken meal involving his friends, relations and a few friendly petty criminals, it is simply a question of working on the suspects until one of them caves in.

The book is not bad, but it was not one that I could really take to, partly for the reasons mentioned above and partly because there is a lack of the charm in Bordelli’s character that is so evident in the irascible Salvo Montalbano (Camilleri) or the introspective Guido Guerrieri in Carofiglio’s books. Nevertheless, if you like a short read (of 200 pages) and a slightly formulaic crime novel set in a well-portrayed foreign land, this could well be a book for you. Death in August is first of a series which is very popular in its native Italy, so it is quite possible that the characters mature slightly (and become less stereotypical) in future installments, and that the memories of WW2 either become more realistic or fade out of the plots.

I thank Karen of Euro Crime for my copy of this book.

Other reviews of this novel are at: Euro Crime (Karen Meek), Random Jottings, and Italian Mysteries (website).

Unfortunately, this is another occasion on which the translator of the book is not named on the Amazon listings by the publisher. Shame!

* UPDATE!! Norman has kindly pointed out in the comments that the Italians changed sides in 1943. I don’t think this affects the basic point, though. Thanks, Norman, for the correction, much appreciated.