Thursday, January 31, 2013

Only one of Giorgio Scerbanenco's crime novels featuring Dr. Duca Lamberti had been published in English translation (Duca and the Milan Murders) before Hersilia Press brought out the very first Duca story, A Private Venus, last year. When I read Duca and the Milan Murders years ago, it struck me as a conventional murder mystery--but now, having read A Private Venus, I'm going to have to go back and re-read it (if I can find it), because A Private Venus is anything but conventional.

Duca is a disgraced physician, just released from prison, when a wealthy man offers him an unconventional job, watching over (and if possible, detoxifying) the alcoholic waster who is his son. Duca takes the job, not having any other prospects, but discovers that there is a crime underlying the young man's lethargy and alcoholism. He enlists the help of a policeman from his past as well as a young woman that he meets, but basically Duca draws all the narrative energy upon himself.

Which is a bit of a problem, since that young woman is the most interesting character in the book, and she reaps the whirlwind sown by Duca. I won't go into any more detail, but Duca makes some extraordinarily stupid decisions as he tracks down the criminals, but he's not the one who will pay the price for the mistakes.

The writing style is a bit indirect and always interesting, and a reader is drawn along by the characters, especially the unfortunate young woman, into the seedy, noir milieu of post-War Milan. The criminal enterprise at first seems even a bit quaint, but turns as sinister as any current crime before the end. Scerbanenco presents a moral conundrum for the reader: Can we empathize with Duca when he is drawing misfortune on other characters? If anyone remembers Duca and the Milan Murders or has read any of the other books in the original Italian, please let us know if Duca becomes a character that it's easier to identify with.

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