The Hotel Of The Three Roses by Augusto De Angelis

(Pushkin Vertigo, £7.99)

WHEN the Italian publisher Mondadori launched their series of cheap, yellow-jacketed mystery novels in 1929 – books that gave their name to the giallo (yellow) thriller tradition – the titles consisted of translations of international authors such as Agatha Christie and Edgar Wallace. Aware there was no home-grown talent in this field, Rome-born journalist Augusto De Angelis set out to plug the gap in the market. The Murdered Banker appeared in 1935, the first of 20 novels featuring Commissario Carlo De Vincenzi.

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Although phenomenally successful in Italy, the De Vincenzi books eventually fell foul of Mussolini’s censors. De Angelis was imprisoned during the war, and shortly after his release he was beaten up by a fascist thug. He died from his injuries in 1944 at the age of 56.

Today, De Angelis is regarded as the father of Italian crime fiction. Amazingly, his books are only now being translated into English. Pushkin Press’s imprint Pushkin Vertigo has added a second De Angelis title to their range. Originally published in 1936, The Hotel Of The Three Roses is a gripping tale of murder and revenge which, like all good detective novels, keeps us rapt for the duration of the case and leaves us wanting more.

The mystery plays out in Milan over the course of a single “diabolical” night in December 1919. De Vincenzi receives an anonymous letter warning of imminent danger at The Hotel Of The Three Roses. His interest piqued, he visits the shady, “third-rate” guesthouse, expecting to chase after shadows. Instead he finds a man hanging from a rope in the stairwell. Suicide is ruled out when it transpires the victim was stabbed before he was hoisted.

De Vincenzi hunts for suspects among the hotel’s colourful guests, who include an English lawyer, a German soldier of fortune, a Lebanese chiromancer, a distraught widow, and a gossipy hunchback – plus an inveterate gambler, who derives pleasure from “doing wrong for its own sake”. De Angelis thickens his plot by bringing in a will, three porcelain dolls, a back-story concerning a South African atrocity and a bogeyman whose name instils fear in all. As more bodies pile up, the story becomes both a fiendish locked-door mystery and a whodunnit with its fair share of red herrings, dark secrets and dastardly motives.

De Angelis generates a deliciously dingy atmosphere, and his tight confines help heighten the tension. Occasionally his prose is marred by cliché (“nerves of steel”, “cool as a cucumber”) which may or may not be the handiwork of his otherwise excellent translator, Jill Foulston. But what is most striking throughout is De Vincenzi’s absolute blankness. De Angelis had still to flesh out what the blurb calls his “cultured protagonist”. Here, he merely describes him as “a man of quality”, and one who won’t sleep until he has nabbed his culprit.

At one point De Vincenzi sums up his confounding case as a “fantastical, knotty story”. It proves immensely satisfying watching him untangle the kinks and tie up loose ends. If this book is representative of all his adventures then the rest of them can’t come soon enough.