A Private Venus – Giorgio Scerbanenco

Title – A Private Venus

Author – Giorgio Scerbanenco (translated by Howard Curtis)

Published – Aug 2012

Genre – Crime fiction

This is the first English translation of this Duca Lamberti novel from renowned Italian crime fiction author Giorgio Scerbanenco. Originally published in 1966 this was the first in the series.

Although born in Kiev with a Russian father and Italian mother, Scerbanenco grew up in Italy and when he was in his late teens his family settled in Milan. The book includes an introduction with some helpful background to the author & the setting of Milan in the late 1960’s. Unless you have personal experience of a place or time that book is set in it can be difficult to put the events into context. This is even more noticeable when the book was written at the time and the author had no need to provide any background!

The story feels very dark – it’s not surprising that Scerbanenco is seen as the father of Italian noir. The characters themselves are flawed – Duca Lamberti is just out of prison after serving three years for the murder of a patient. He is contacted by Engineer Pietro Auserolo, a humourless man who is trying to find someone to help cure his twenty-two year old son, Davide,  of alcoholism. His approach can be summed up in “I would rather he was dead than an alcoholic”. Despite this he obviously cares about his son & is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to help him.

Lamberti accepts the job and after Auserolo makes the introductions he leaves the doctor and patient together. Lamberti believes that there must be a reason for Davide’s incessant drinking but he tries not to force the issue – taking the opposite approach to Davide’s father. Lamberti’s approach pays off quickly and he soon learns the reason that Davide feels driven to drink. Not only does he find out the full story that lead to Davide’s current situation, but he also finds what may be a clue to a young girl’s murder, and that’s when the story becomes even darker – with prostitution and pornography as well as murder.

To be honest it isn’t especially graphic, but the darkness of the story is unrelenting – no flashes of humour here to lighten the mood! In comparison to a lot of current crime fiction the details feel a little tame, but as a whole it makes grim reading. The only character who seems to have a brighter side is Livia, a girl who followed the proceedings of Lamberti’s trial and is something of a fan. But she has a dark background  – a fascination with the idea of prostitution, and although Lamberti is drawn to her, he treats her dreadfully, with quite gruesome consequences.

There are two aspects of the story that I found particularly difficult. Firstly, every woman, with the exception of Lamberti’s sister, is willing to prostitute herself. It feels more like the writer’s view of women than a statement about how women behaved in Milan at the time – but I’m no expert. The second is the writing surrounding one of the characters who is homosexual. For the most part the character is referred to as “the homosexual” when he’s not being called “the pederast” or “the mutant”. Uncomfortable reading and all I can say is that we’ve come along way!

I quite enjoyed the story and I would be interested to see if more titles are translated and how Lamberti’s character develops, but this wasn’t an easy read.  Many thanks to Hersilia Press for the review copy.

You can see more thoughts about this book over at Killing Time.

Score – 3/5

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2 comments

  1. Lovely review. This book has been very highly praised but I am a bit wary of reading it for the darkness you mention. I have read quite a bit of Italian crime fiction and this type of sexism is relentless, it is really depressing, even Camilleri scores low in that department. Carofiglio’s latest novel featured as part of its plot the fact that young teenage girls were being used as, in effect, prostitutes by old men (ie sex in return for money & the high life) – seemingly with approval from the “hero” and the author. I had really enjoyed Carofiglio’s books to that point! One sort-of exception is Lucarelli’s series about the female police detective, who is treated in a sexist way but the author clearly does not approve of this. It seems that Italian-set mysteries that feature decent women characters (who aren’t there for sex or cooking) have to depend on the American Donna Leon!

    1. Thank Maxine. I guess when I read crime fiction set in Italy I’m also looking for something of the “bella figura” feeling you get from the setting (or in Camilleri’s case the food) & can ignore the sexist view up to a point. This could have been set anywhere though, there didn’t feel like there was anything intrinsically Italian about it. I didn’t find the actual story very satisfying, but perhaps I’m just spoilt with so much good current crime fiction.
      I’d add to Donna Leon the books by David Hewson too.

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