Translated by Jill Foulston
It took me a few pages to get into The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, it was first published in 1970, and if the past is a foreign country this 1970 felt further away than the Milan of the 1930's from 'The Mystery of The Three Orchids'. I thought at first it was because the book was in translation that it initially felt stilted, but as I got into it I realised it was more to do with the slang of the era.
Not that slang is quite the right word, but there's the definite feel of a classic Martini or Cinzano advert about some of the background details. They're balanced against the police man going home for his lunch time spaghetti every day - and although this may still be the custom in well to do Italian suburban towns, that too carries a sense of a different time.
Detective Sciancalepre is minding his own business when his friend, the prominent criminal lawyer, Esengrini comes to see him, saying that his wife has run away. Signora Giulia is quite a bit younger than her husband, beautiful, and in the habit of visiting her daughter at her school in Milan every Thursday. This time she's left with her room in a mess, clothes and jewelry gone.
Esengrini reveals without much visible sign of upset that he's had his wife followed and has reason to believe she's having an affair. He wants her retrieved so that they can try to rebuild their marriage. The details here make it clear that the expectations, and law, in 1970's Catholic Italy around marriage are unfamiliar to me. Sciancalepre's investigations come to a dead end though, which surprises him. His expectation is that a woman leaving her husband and child will always get back in touch with some friend to discover what the fall out has been, and Signora Giulia does not.
There's also a growing coolness between Sciancalepre and Esengrini, and between Esengrini and his daughter who will inherit the sizable house when she comes of age. Years pass, and then suddenly a clue to what happened to Signora Giulia emerges - but who is responsible for what happened, and will it ever be possible for Sciancalepre to prove his suspicions?
This is a clever story that wrong footed me in a couple of places - a relationship that looked like it might be really seedy turns out not to be, and there's plenty of the ambiguity that I love in a mystery like this. Sciancalepre is an unexpectedly appealing character - steady, methodical, intelligent, uncomplicated, and I really liked the final twist.
From the moment I got that mental image of a Martini ad the whole thing came alive for me in a really vivid way too. Highly recommended.