My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Giorgio Scerbanenco was born in Kiev to a Ukrainian father and an Italian mother, but at an early age, his family emigrated with him to Rome. He wrote in Italian and in the 1960s, which seems to have been a very prolific and creative period of the mystery genre, he essentially founded the the school of Italian noir fiction. Private Venus was the first entry in that new field of fiction.
This book was the first in a series known as the Milano Quartet. Other books in the series are Betrayers of All, The Boys of the Massacre, and The Milanese Kill. The first one was published in 1966 and the last one in 1969. Unfortunately, Scerbanenco died prematurely in late 1969, so the literary world never got to see where he might have taken his new genre.
Private Venus introduces us to the main character, the "detective" in the series. He is Dr. Duca Lamberti. We meet him just as he has been released from prison after serving three years for assisting one of his patients, an old lady dying painfully of cancer, to die. Though euthanasia was against the law, there was a lot of sympathy for Dr. Lamberti and once he is released, one of his connections, a policeman who was friends with his father, helps him in getting a job.
He is hired by a friend of the policeman, a millionaire plastics tycoon, to babysit his son. The son is in his twenties and his life has gone seriously off the rails. He is slowly drinking himself to death. The father fears that the son has become a hopeless alcoholic, but he wants the doctor to keep him away from alcohol - maybe even cure him of his craving.
Lamberti observes the young man, Davide, and becomes convinced that he is not, in fact, an alcoholic and thinks that he can wean him from drink. He believes there is some hidden underlying reason for the drinking and he soon discovers what it is. Davide is convinced that he is responsible for the death of a beautiful young woman a year before. Her death was ruled a suicide, but she was with Davide in the hours before she died and he believes that if only he had stayed with her, she would be alive. He drinks to forget his guilt.
In time, a vital clue is discovered - a role of film - that convinces Lamberti that the death was not a suicide at all, but a murder. When he is able to tie it to the death of another young woman, the first victim's friend, in Rome, he is certain he is right and sets out with Davide to prove it, with the help of a cooperative policeman, as well as a very brave young woman who willingly offers herself as bait to uncover a vicious ring of white slavers.
Throw in a mandatory Mafia connection and you've got a pretty nasty stew, one which the obsessive, world-weary Duca Lamberti, no longer licensed to practice his profession, is determined to sort out into its constituent parts and bring some justice to two victimized women - and peace of mind to his client, Davide.
Reading books in translation is always an adventure and a bit of an iffy thing. I've seen several reviews of this translation by Howard Curtis that have praised it. On the whole, it seemed adequate to me but there were times when the wording seemed a bit awkward and clunky and I had to wonder how it might have flowed more easily in Italian. But since I don't read that beautiful language, I can only speculate.
I think the second book in the series has now been translated. I'm not sure about the others, but I've got them all on my TBR list for some later date.
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