Monday, May 11, 2020

The Mystery of the Three Orchids - Augusto De Angelis - translated by Jill Foulston

I was going to post about this book yesterday, but for the first time in this lockdown felt so overset (a mix of anger, sadness, and apprehension) by Boris Johnson's address to the nation that all I managed to do was scroll through twitter and take comfort in not being the only person to feel like this. I'm still angry and apprehensive but at least managed to direct some of that energy towards rearranging all the furniture in my sitting room which if nothing else looks productive.

It's not the sense of making up a plan as we go along that bothers me, this is new, it's the only sort of plan that we can make. It's the really poor communication, the lack of clarity, and the feeling that priorities are back to front. If it's safe to go to work it should be safe to see family members who don't need to shield. If it's not safe to see family (albeit with precautions in place) how can it be safe to go back to work?

None of which has anything to do with 'The Mystery of the Three Orchids'. My backlog of Pushkin Vertigo titles are proving good company at the moment and this one, first published in Italy in 1942 but set in the 1930's fits nicely with my love of golden age crime.

It's set in a Milan fashion house and is full of intriguing details about how pre war couture worked. The fashion houses owner is Cristiana O'Brien who it turns out has a lot to hide, and hide from. In the middle of a show for invited guests only she sees an unexpected face, and when she removes herself to her bedroom (she lives on site) her day goes from bad to worse when she finds a dead body on her bed.

After this the bodies start to pile up, there are as good a set of red herrings as you might reasonably expect to find, and everybody is increasingly on edge. The eventual reveal makes sense - with hindsight it couldn't really have been anybody else - and there are clues along the way to hint the reader in the right direction.

There's a moral ambiguity about Cristiana (not, it turns out, her real name) and two of the victims that I think would be unusual in British golden age crime, that Inspector De Vincenzi seems entirely unconcerned by. The crime he's called in to investigate is murder, and any casual blackmailing, or notorious American bank robbers that cross his path are irrelevant to him. It makes the laying of red herrings a lot easier and gives the characters a depth they might otherwise lack.

Augusto De Angelis sounds interesting, he wrote a series of detective novels through the 30s, at least a couple more of which have been published by Pushkin, which made his name. He was also a journalist. He was not popular with Italy's fascist government which led to him being imprisoned during the war. A beating administered by a fascist activist caused a fatal injury, he died in 1944.


  1. Sharing your sense of feeling overset. I'm struggling to process, which has also meant struggling to read - but taking notes of books for the future, and this sounds very intriguing. I also wanted to add: your blog is always a comfort and a pleasure, particularly in our strange times. You're very good at acknowledging the jagged edges, and finding ways to sit with them and learn from them.

  2. Thank you, that's a really generous thing to say - and very timely. I've just unravelled days worth of knitting having made one mistake to many and not being able to fix it, so a nice comment is a welcome lift. Hope you're doing okay despite it all!

  3. I quite understand; BoJo wasn't exactly crystal clear, but you can comfort yourself knowing that at least you don't live in the US! My sympathies over the unravelling. I had a similar incident last week, and it took me days to get past the unravelled yarn. And I don't even like the yarn much.

    1. I've restarted the project with a fresh ball of yarn, it was the second time I had to pull it back, I thought a new ball might be better luck - and ay least not remind me of all the wasted time!

      Trump and Johnson seem to represent the very worst, and the biggest national weaknesses, of both countries. I wonder if part of the problem is that collectively we can't quite comprehend how anybody let them get this far. Is there still a belief that if you're in the top job you are by definition somehow fit for it? What a time to be trying to stay alive.