A Private Venus

PRAISE FOR
GIORGIO SCERBANENCO

“A gem … A vivid portrait of Milan’s seamy underbelly … Scerbanenco reveals Duca Lamberti to us; in doing so, he also unveils the Italian hardboiled hero.”


CRIME FICTION LOVER

“Scerbanenco’s dark, moody novels have much in common with the darkest of Scandinavian crime fiction … This forgotten noir classic from 1966 is finally available in translation. That’s good news!”


LIBRARY JOURNAL

“There is courage in his books, the courage to call things by their name … No filters shield you from the reality, which is as desperate, fierce, and stark as in the best novels of James Ellroy or Jim Thompson.”


CARLO LUCARELLI

“[Scerbanenco can be] as dark as Leonardo Sciascia, as deadpan realistic as Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, as probing in his observation of people as Simenon, as humane as Camilleri, as noir as Manchette … but with a dark, dark humor all his own.”

—DETECTIVES BEYOND BORDERS

“The Duca Lamberti novels are world-class noir, and their publication in English is long, long overdue.”

—THE COMPLETE REVIEW

GIORGIO SCERBANENCO was born in Kiev in 1911 to a Ukrainian father and an Italian mother, grew up in Rome, and moved to Milan at the age of eighteen. In the 1930s, he worked as a journalist and attempted some early forays into fiction. In 1943, as German forces advanced on the city, Scerbanenco escaped over the Alps to Switzerland, carrying nothing but a hundred pages of a new novel he was working on. He returned to Milan in 1945 and resumed his prolific career, writing for women’s magazines, including a very popular advice-for-the-lovelorn column, and publishing dozens of novels and short stories. But he is best known for the four books he wrote at the end of his life that make up the Milano Quartet,
A Private Venus, Traitors to All, The Boys of the Massacre
, and
The Milanese Kill on Saturdays
. Scerbanenco drew on his experiences as an orderly for the Milan Red Cross in the 1930s to create his protagonist Duca Lamberti, a disbarred doctor; it was during this period that he came to know another, more desperate side of his adopted city. The quartet of novels was immediately hailed as noir classics, and on its publication in 1966,
Traitors to All
received the most prestigious European crime prize, the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. The annual prize for the best Italian crime novel, the Premio Scerbanenco, is named after him. He died in 1969 in Milan.

HOWARD CURTIS translates books from French, Italian, and Spanish, and was awarded the John Florio Prize (2004) as well as the Europa Campiello Literary Prize (2010).

MELVILLE INTERNATIONAL CRIME

A PRIVATE VENUS

First published in Italy in 1966 as
Venere Privata
by
Edizioni Garzanti S.p.A., Milano
Copyright © 1966 Giorgio Scerbanenco Estate
Published in agreement with Agenzia Letteraria Internazionale
First published in the United Kingdom by Hersilia Press
Translation copyright © 2012 Hersilia Press

First Melville House printing: March 2014

Melville House Publishing
145 Plymouth Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
and
8 Blackstock Mews
Islington
London N4 2BT

mhpbooks.com
facebook.com/mhpbooks
@melvillehouse

ISBN: 978-1-61219-336-6

A catalog record for this book is
available from the Library of Congress.

v3.1

PROLOGUE FOR A SHOP ASSISTANT

‘What’s your name?’

‘Antonio Marangoni. I live over there in Cascina Luasca; I’ve been going to Rogoredo by bicycle every morning for more than fifty years.’

‘Don’t waste your time on these old geezers, let’s go back to the paper.’

‘He’s the one who found the girl, he can describe her for us, otherwise we’ll have to go to the morgue, and we’re already late.’

‘I saw her when the ambulance arrived, she was wearing a sky-blue dress.’

‘A sky-blue dress. What colour hair?’

‘Dark, but not black.’

‘Dark, but not black.’

‘She had these big round sunglasses.’

‘Round sunglasses.’

‘I couldn’t see much of her face, it was covered by her hair.’

‘Move on please, there’s nothing to see.’

‘There’s nothing to see, the officer’s right, let’s go back to the paper.’

‘Move on, now. Why aren’t you lot at school?’

‘Yes, what are all these kids doing here?’

‘When I arrived I could smell blood.’

‘Go on, Signor Marangoni.’

‘I could smell blood.’

‘Yes, she must have lost a lot of blood.’

‘I couldn’t smell anything, too much time had passed before we got here in the van.’

‘Go on, officer.’

‘They’ll tell you all you need to know at Headquarters. I’m here to keep the riff-raff away, I don’t talk to reporters. But you couldn’t smell the blood, that’s just not possible.’

‘Well,
I
smelt it, and I have a good nose. I got off my bike because I needed to pass water, I put the bike down on the ground.’

‘Go on, Signor Marangoni.’

‘I went to the bushes, the ones over there, and that’s when I saw the foot, well the shoe anyway.’

‘Move on now, keep moving, there’s nothing to see, all these people looking at a bit of empty field.’

‘At first all I saw was the shoe, I didn’t see the foot inside it, so I reached out my hand.’

‘Alberta Radelli, twenty-three years old, shop assistant, found in Metanopoli, near Cascina Luasca, the body was found at 5:30 in the morning by Signor Antonio Marangoni, sky-blue dress, dark hair, not black, round glasses, I’ll go and phone this in, then I’ll come back and pick you up.’

‘Then I realised there was a foot inside the shoe and I felt sick, I moved all those weeds and I saw her, it was obvious straight away that she was dead.’

PART ONE

Isn’t summing up a man’s life a kind of prayer?

1

After three years in prison he had learned to pass the time with whatever was at hand, but for the first ten minutes he smoked a cigarette without thinking of any game to play. It was only when he threw the cigarette end down on the gravel drive that it struck him: the number of little stones in the various drives and garden paths was a finite number. Even the number of grains of sand in all the beaches in the world was a finite number that could be calculated, however large it was, and so, staring down at the ground, he started to count. In five square centimetres there might be an average of eighty stones, so he calculated visually the area of all the drives and paths that led to the villa ahead of him and concluded that all the gravel in all the drives, which seemed infinite, consisted of a mere one million six hundred thousand stones, with a ten per cent margin of error.

Then, suddenly, there was a crunching sound on the gravel, and he lifted his head for a moment: a man had emerged from the villa and was coming along the biggest drive towards him. Now that the man had appeared he had time to play a game, so, sitting on that small concrete shelf that functioned as a bench, he leaned forward and picked up
a handful of stones. The game consisted of guessing two things: one, if the number of stones was an odd or even number, and two, if that number was higher or lower than a chosen number: twenty, for example. To win you had to guess both things. He estimated that he had an even number of stones in his fist, and a number lower than twenty. He opened his fist and counted: he had won, there were eighteen stones.

‘I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting, Dr. Lamberti.’ The man had come level with him, and his voice was solemn and tired, the voice of a weary emperor. Leaning forward like that, Duca saw only the man’s legs, thin legs inside narrow trousers: a young man’s trousers, although the man wasn’t young, as he saw as soon as he got up to shake the hand he was holding out. He was a middle-aged man, little but powerful, his hair shaved to almost nothing, his beard shaved down to the root, his hand also little but with a grip of steel.

‘Good evening,’ he said to the little emperor. ‘Pleased to meet you.’ In prison he had learned not to say more than he needed to. At his trial, while Signora Maldrigati’s niece was crying over her murdered aunt, but omitting to mention the millions she had inherited from that same aunt, he had wanted to speak, but his defence lawyer, almost with tears in his eyes, had whispered in his ear that he shouldn’t say a word, not one: he would tell the truth, and the truth is death; anything but the truth in a courtroom, at a trial. Or in life.

‘It’s very hot in Milan,’ the little man said, and sat down next to him on the concrete bench. ‘Here in the Brianza, on the other hand, it’s always cool. Do you know the Brianza?’

He couldn’t have called him here to talk about the weather in the Brianza, he was just building up to it. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘as a boy I used to come here by bicycle, Canzo, Asso, the lake.’

‘By bicycle,’ the little man said. ‘I used to come here by bicycle, too, when I was young.’

The conversation seemed to be over. In the dusk, the garden was almost dark, some lights went on in the villa, a bus passed on the main road twenty metres below the villa, its horn sounding almost like a piece by Wagner.

‘It’s gone out of fashion these days,’ the little man resumed, ‘they all chase the sun on the French Riviera or the islands, whereas here in the Brianza, only half an hour’s drive from Milan, the air’s as clear as if you were in Tahiti. I think it’s because people always want to go a long way from where they are. A place is never beautiful if it’s too close. My son regards this villa as a kind of punishment cell, whenever I tell him to come here he does it as a penance. Maybe he’s right: it may be cooler, but it’s a bit boring.’ It was almost dark now, the lighted windows in the villa were the only light. In a different voice, the little man said, ‘Were you told why I wanted to see you, Dr. Lamberti?’

No, Duca said, he hadn’t been told. What he had been told, though, was who this man who seemed so modest, so simple, really was: one of the magnificent five, in other words one of the top five engineers in the field of plastics, Engineer Pietro Auseri, late fifties, a man who could create anything out of anything; a special kind of plastic was named after him, Auserolo, he had three degrees, his fortune
must be considerable, but officially he was only a freelance engineer with an old office in an old street in Milan.

‘I thought they would have told you,’ the little man said. The tiredness had gone from his voice, only the authority remained, he had clearly said all he had to say on the topics of the weather and tourism.

‘All I was told was that you might have a job for me,’ Duca said. It was dark now, more lights came on in the villa, a dim trail of light reached as far as the spot where they were.

‘Yes, in a way it’s a job,’ Auseri said. ‘Do you mind if we talk here? My son’s in the house and I don’t want you to see him until after we’ve talked.’

‘That’s fine by me.’ He liked this little middle-aged man: he was no fool. Over the past few years, inside prison and out, Duca had seen whole armies of fools and he could almost tell them from the smell, from a finger, from a single hair in their eyebrows.

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