David’s Book World
David’s Book World (22 August 2021)
I have to thank its translator, Andrew Edwards, for introducing me to this book, the second entry in Italica Press’ Italian Crime Writers series. Agony was originally published in 1897, and is described here as the first Sicilian detective procedural.
October 1894, Lake Geneva: the beautiful Countess Fiorenza d’Arda has been found dead. To the examining magistrate, François Ferpierre, it appears clear that the Countess shot herself. But poet Robert Vérod takes one look at the body and cries murder, accusing the Countess’s lover Prince Alexi Zakunin – an exiled Russian revolutionary – of being complicit.
An initial round of interviews yields contradictory accounts that bear further investigation. Ferpierre looks into other sources, including the Countess’s diary. His ideas about what happened and why evolve as he goes. Agony’s investigation is like a dance, going back and forth between different possibilities. I found the book highly intriguing, and I’m glad to have read it.
— David Hebblethwaite
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crossexaminingcrime (11 August, 2021)
This was one of my reads from last weekend, and I was very intrigued to give it a go. Translated by Andrew Edwards, this is the first English translation of the title, which is deemed to be one of the earliest examples of a Sicilian “psychological detective novel.” Federico De Roberto (1861-1927) was better known for writing upon political and social matters, and the majority of his fictional output was in the realist mode, including a family saga. As a young adult he was a literary critic in Milan and was something of an essay writer. As is so often the case, much of his work became popular after his death, and it is felt that timing was one of the reasons why his family saga, I Viceré, did not garner much praise at the time of its publication. Yet in 2007 an adaptation of it was made.
The beautiful young Countess Fiorenza d’Arda has died dramatically at her villa near Lake Geneva. Judge François Ferpierre, the senior magistrate assigned to Lausanne’s central court, arrives to investigate whether it was murder or suicide. In either case, who is responsible? A diverse set of characters – including two Russian anarchists and a melancholy young poet, each struggling with their own complex moral, political and artistic dilemmas – all become suspects. Ferpierre works on shifting ground as each new revelation uncovers another aspect of the case, another quandary shedding new light on intertwining motivations.
There is no prevaricating with this mystery, as the story commences with the detective arm of the story, announcing the death of Countess d’Arda, and the opening chapter mostly takes place in her bedroom, where she has been shot. It is interesting that initially her ex-lover, Prince Alexi Zakunin, is depicted in a distressful state, in contrast to the serenely portrayed countess: “Even though the horrid sight of death, a sudden and violent death was such that nobody approached the body, it wasn’t the corpse that created the strongest emotional impact but the survivor himself.” When describing the countess’ face, the narrator says: “Nothing in it revealed the constrictions of agony. On the contrary, a confident serenity and something approximating a smile played across it […]. With her wide eyes turned upwards, she seemed to be in ecstasy, as of she still hadn’t completely let go of life.…” Conversely, Prince Zakunin is said to be “deathly pale, with distorted features, untidy hair tumbling over his eye, his lips. Hands and whole body trembling, as if in full fever, Prince Alexi instilled a feeling of fear.”
To begin with, everyone concludes that the countess shot herself due to her life-shortening health condition, and due to personal distress regarding her relationships. However, her new lover, Robert Verod, vehemently disagrees and accuses the prince and one of his friends (a female Russian medical student and anarchist) of killing her instead. However, personal feelings aside, he does not have any physical proof. Interestingly, the first chapter closes with another look at the countess’ body, now the accusation has been made public and her eyes are now “fixed, terrible, no longer in ecstasy.”
Despite the lack of evidence, Verod’s ideas take root, and it is down to Judge François Ferpierre to see if they have any validity. He goes to interview the various people involved and some discrepancies creep into the witnesses’ testimonies. But what do they mean? One of the minor characters I enjoyed from the opening of the novel is Baroness Börne, as she put me in mind of some of the spinster characters we encounter in Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage (1930):
“During the magistrate’s questions, Baroness Börne’s attitude was very odd, almost comic. As she couldn’t speak, she closed her lips, moved her eyes, shook her head, tilted her entire body, as if repeating the justice’s questions and confirming the others’ answers in order to prove she had foreseen everything. By signs, she would intimate that she had an observation to make, even at times interrupting.…”
Although Ferpierre operates within the legal system, I think De Roberto still gives him some Holmesian aspects. When being introduced to him, we are told that he was “very young” for a senior examining magistrate, “still less than forty years old.” The narrator goes on to tell us that: “He had a solid legal background, much knowledge of life and the human heart, plus a natural aptitude for observation, which in the exercise of his profession had turned into an inspired clairvoyance, an almost fateful prescience.” Like the author, Ferpierre was pushed into a different career by his parents. In the case of De Roberto he was steered into studying science when he wanted to be a writer, and his sleuth Ferpierre equally wanted to pursue the arts, but was more successfully pushed into studying law. It is said that “he harboured a kind of rancour towards his family” for influencing him this way. Nevertheless, Ferpierre thinks his artistic qualities help him to assess people’s characters, which is something he can use in his work.
The judge takes a dim view of most of the suspects and is highly suspicious of them all. There are several motives to consider, but he predominantly concentrates on the countess’ romantic entanglements and whether they would have caused her to commit suicide or given her a reason to live.
The first two chapters set up the death of the countess and the judge’s initial actions in his investigation. The narrative then changes direction with the third chapter, immersing the reader in Verod’s thoughts which are reflecting on how he came to know the countess, whilst the fourth chapter sees the judge analysing her diary, which covers most of her life. When it comes to the gaps in the diary, the judge does his best to fill them in, based on what he knows of her. These two chapters are quite lengthy and mark the text’s transition into being a psychological crime novel. The judge’s investigation resurfaces more overtly in the text later on, but the psychological dimension from this juncture becomes the priority.
The introduction to this translation highlights why this is so, exploring De Roberto’s interest in this area, which has roots in an earlier non-mystery novel of his, Emanno Reali. Relationships in both texts tend to be pessimistic of male-female relationships and portray them as being inevitably tragic. Yet it is this interest in human nature which fuels Agony, and Andrew Edwards, who wrote the introduction, comments that De Roberto was concerned with “how the psychological impact of love motivates human action.”
Due to the psychological focus taking over, and due to the writing-style trends at the time, the narrative after the opening chapters considerably slows down in pace, with less action and more philosophical musings. I don’t automatically equate psychological crime novels as being slower books, as there are a number of mysteries from the 1930s onwards which show how dynamic they can be. Unfortunately, that is not the case here; and the extensive discourse about love, personal autonomy and virtue somewhat cramp the mystery plot’s style, despite being intrinsic to the motivations involved. The judge and Verod theorise a lot in this story as to what person a or b might have done based on their past experiences and personality. But to be honest for the reader, this comes across as padding and makes the text go around in circles.
The judge’s decisions on how to progress the case are ambiguous in their ethics and in their efficacy. Confession forms a considerable part of his investigation, and the ending concludes on something of a moral dilemma. Whilst there is one good use of a red herring clue, I think it is deployed too late in the book to skew events effectively.
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