Thursday, May 7, 2015

A very beautiful unknown Italian locked room of '30s: Franco Vailati - Il Mistero dell' Idrovolante (The Mystery of the Seaplane), 1935

His name was Leo Wollemborg Junior, and was the son of Leo Wollemborg, a rich German-born italian economist who had been Minister of Finance of the Government Zanardelli in 1901 and senator for life in 1914, and Alina Regina Fano, sister of the mathematician Gino Fano. He was born in Loreggia, in the province of Padua (but according to some sources, including international arbitration between the US and Italy, it seems that it could be born in Rome) in 1912, and in Padua he followed the studies, enrolling at the university and later becoming a journalist . In 1932 he wrote the novel Elena. A few years later he published his unique detective novel, the most beautiful italian locked room of '30s, that Mondadori published in I Libri Gialli in 1935, entitled Il mistero dell’idrovolante (The Mystery of the Seaplane): for the occasion Wollemborg Leo J. used the pseudonym of Franco Vailati. Repaired in America in 1939, after the promulgation of racial laws in Italy, as jew, then he became a US citizen before and an American soldier after (he fought in World War II), he returned to Italy in the 50s, as a correspondent in Washington Post, dealing with Common Foreign and collaborating with Italian newspapers.  He died in 2000 in New York. The "Columbia University" has instituted in his name a scholarship. He wrote essays, including Stars, Stripes And Italian Tricolor: The United States And Italy, 1946-1989.
The Mystery of the Seaplane, is a complex Locked Room that pays tribute to the deductive novel in vogue in the '30s.
The Dornier WAL-134 is the largest of the latest generation of  moored seaplanes at the mouth of the Tiber, Ostia, and " for breadth, comfort and technical perfection, could really rival the best models in service on lines foreign" (page 7 ): it is used on sea-Ostia Palermo, to bring 15 people on board (twelve passengers, two pilots and a mechanic who may require interventions of necessity and emergency).
On the 12th of July, WAL-134   is about to leave from Hydroport, when a man comes out of breath: he is the Rag. Larini. (1). He must arrive at very short time to target to treat a very important deal for the bank whose he employs, the Metropolitan Bank, but there is no place on the aircraft, as is often repeated by employees. Therefore he corrupts the mechanic on duty on DO -WAL 134, with a large sum, and he is agree to give him a seat in the cabin, on the side of the two pilots, while he will make the journey in the luggage room. The hydroplane is about to take flight but misses the last passenger who arrives out of breath:he is the banker Agliati, a guy with a mustache and a beautiful belly. He takes place in the aircraft and this leaves. Unremarkable: the passengers are beginning to take note, at least some of them. On board there is also a journalist Giorgio Vallesi, who is on the airplane to write on behalf of his newspaper, an article by color right on the crossing of this airplane, the pride of Italy. Subject of his looks interested is the beautiful Marcella Arteni, which seems to correspond; and then there is a strange lady who attracts his looks, such Vanna Sandrelli, for the fact that while elegantly dressed in red, she is carrying a bag strangely colored green, which conflicts greatly with the dress of Ventura: she’s strangely nervous. The other passengers are a couple, Mr and Mrs Martelli; Three Merchants country: Marchetti, Sabelli and Bertieri; three people of rank political: a big piece of the Foreign Ministry and his two secretaries.
One of the merchants, Sabelli, gets up and goes to the bathroom: it is a small room of one square meter of width and one meter seventy tall, a hole in substance, with a toilet, and has a small window on the ceiling to ventilate . After him, gets up Vallesi taking a walk up to the cockpit, separated by a glass door, and returned to his fellow travelers, he announces that on board there is an almost clandestine, the Rag. Larini, who travels with the two pilots, having bribed the mechanic, who is now in the trunk, for cede his place behind the two pilots, and adds jokingly that is quite fat, and his weight could affect the tonnage of  plane. All do not notice: only the banker Agliati, which is also fat he looks worried: he gets up and goes to the bathroom. After a while 'is seen out of the luggage compartment a man in overalls, the mechanic, who goes into the cockpit and soon returns carrying a bundle. Meanwhile, the other merchant Marchetti goes to the bathroom: he wait, then go back; then again, turning to his companions until he blurts out that the banker will be closed in the bathroom and did not come out despite having spent half an hour. Concerned Vallesi knocks but nobody answers, he tries to open the door but it is closed, and so should they tell the commander, who decides at the scheduled stopover in Naples, trying to bring help to the banker: but what is the surprise of all when, smashed the door, which happens to be locked from the inside by a bolt, found the room completely empty: where is the banker Agliati? Evaporated in the sky through the window, or pushed down into the clouds through the flush? And whatever it was his goal, his disappearance was due to what? A suicide, misfortune or murder?
At hydroport of Beverello, near Naples, to take care of the investigation is the Commissioner Boldrin, who doesn’t “hollow a spider from hole”: at the space and at what it seems, there are no hidden openings, and the only way out seems to be the window; however, the impossibility of the situation is the fact that the banker was rather fat and would never have passed through a window as small as that. So? Boldrin doesn’t know how to get.
His rescue comes the Vice-Questor Renzi, the Central Police Headquarters in Rome, the grandson of a big shot of the Ministry of the Interior: Renzi, read the news in a newspaper in Rome, asking to be sent to Naples as an observer, as are all Roman the passengers, and the seaplane is left from Rome; also it has read that among the passengers there is an old friend, the journalist Vallesi, companion sprees many years before.
The investigations are extremely complex: Boldrin eliminated as causes both the misfortune, the suicide, for the manifest impossibility that a fat as Agliati was able to pull himself out of a window much smaller than his circumference, or it could slip away, so more that the plane has not been overturned in flight and therefore would not be able to slip through the small opening in the roof. However, the only remaining possibility is inherently impossible to turn, because if he had been killed, at least one other person there should have been in that tiny bathroom, which is absolutely impossible to have happened given the lack of space for to retreat.
With Renzi, however, the investigation while not shedding light on the disappearance impossible, allow, through the interrogation of texts, to establish that: Mrs. Vanna Sandrelli, the lady in red, has provided false information; two of the three merchants, Sabelli and Marchetti, grain traders, knew each other, while the third, Bertieri is actually Pagelli, an old acquaintance of the police, and he’s not a trader but an envoy of the Bank of Italy and Argentina, which must conclude a particular deal in Tunis. Moreover Commissioner Boldrin makes a discovery: frisking passenger baggage, he realizes that in one of the suitcases of Sabelli, there’s on internal liner a sequence of numbers: it would seem a code, but then it is assumed (and is confirmed by subsequent investigations) that are multiple telephon numbers placed next to each other. While not seeming to have connection with the rest of the events, trying to give a paternity to those numbers and that's one of the sequences strangely it leads to one of the Deputy Directors of the Bank of Italy and Argentina.
While you're trying to deal with them, another criminal act disturbs public opinion: Marchetti that would have met with his friend Sabelli at Naples station to continue to Palermo (which would make other passengers of the seaplane, blocked for investigation in Naples) can not find it and then instructed previously, having the Sabelli bags, put them in the place of his friend, waiting the friend on  the train to turn up. But by Sabelli no trace, until someone does not open them in the presence of Marchetti and in one of them they find in the midst of sawdust, the arms and Marchetti’s head. Marchetti is put in custody for murder, but did not know anything, so he says; and in the meantime, a few hours later it is discovered another couple of cases, the same as those of Sabelli in police custody, on the train Naples-Brindisi, in which are found the trunk, and the legs of Sabelli.
Has Sabelli’s death connection with Agliati’s death, always he's dead?
Another strange thing happens: in Italy Corso, in Rome, an office was ransacked, but the strange thing is that nothing is missing. Renzi for a case is asked to deal with it, and in a room closed from the inside, finds the crates full of sawdust, while in another, Renzi locates next to a phone, a number that fits with the string of numbers found in suitcase of Sabelli, while have gone missing all the towels in the bathroom. Renzi assumes that is the place where Sabelli was killed and dismembered. Subsequent investigation will  allow him to reconstruct the sequence of events that runs all around the Bank of Italy and Argentina, and relations with the banker Agliati, not before someone had tried to kill the wife and the daughter fourteeen of Agliati, near Villa Borghese.

Giorgio Vallesi offers his own solution to the mystery of the disappearance of Agliati: he was not really fat but only he would pretend to be it: but how? Once entered at the toilet, having got rid of the fake belly sending it flying away, through the window, he would be hoisted and walking on the outer fuselage seaplane (hypothesis mad) would be hacked in the luggage room, through the outer door which can be opened even by external; in there, he would have bought the silence of the mechanic, who would come out and returned with a package, which according to the Vallesi could have been a mechanic's overalls; in that mechanic’s overalls, while the others were intent on knocking the door, he would come out from the plane. However, the solution of Vallesi has some obvious flaws: the Beverello pier was super guarded by police and no one among those present had come from the seaplane; is also confirmed by the testimony of the pilots, the mechanic had brought nothing with him in the store that a package, and it contained not a mechanic’s overalls but a loaf of bread, and fruit, as evidenced by the peach pits found in the luggage storage.
Starting from assumption by Vallesi, saving what he feels interesting and rejecting the rest, Renzi will be able to solve the mystery of the closed toilet, to find the true identity of Agliati, with a past of profiteer and swindler, to rebuild that of another his former  become an important figure of finance, who feared the revelations of his former friend, and to arrest him, with other fellow gang members, in a field where they were hiding a coffin containing the corpse of the banker Agliati.
Lively  Italian mystery, The Mystery of the Seaplane, is a tribute to the whodunit of 30s. Complex and also difficult in certain passages, for example that relating to reasoning about the two pairs of bags containing the human remains of Sabelli, according to which is discharged the most likely of the killers, Marchetti, who for more admitted that the suitcase containing the head was in his possession, the novel in my opinion, however, has two major flaws: no atmosphere and the murderer is not one of the passengers, that’s the actors in the drama.
It would have been a good novel, if it possessed an atmosphere, and instead seems to be rather a news story, unvarnished, a mere exercise in general, a divertissement, and as such it should be seen, with some rhythm and even suspence, and somehow carefree and light. Probably because it is a tribute to the fashion of whodunnit, without the author felt  transport or passion about it, or perhaps the need, where the predominant part is performed by deductive reasoning that is so cold but also virtuoso in his ruminations and hypothesis. The author was a journalist, and the novel seems at times something more than a chronicle: what it lacks is the inspiration of the novelist who can, through their own innate vein or through the tricks of style, to create an atmosphere in which the player is bound. That is not here. On this level, the novel loses the competition with the more dysfunctional among the De Angelis novels (if it exists) or with Alessandro Varaldo that, with all the "if" and "but", was a writer by trade and not a journalist lent to the narrative.

However, we said, another flaw, in my opinion is the fact that the murderer is not one of the passengers: I do not think I can say  Wollemborg could have read Obelists Fly High by Daly King or vice versa ( and this would have been possible if the American author had known the Italian language), because both novels  are of 1935, and the first edition of the masterpiece of Daly King appeared in Italian, in 1938. And same thing can not be said by Wollemborg / Vailati about the novel Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie, because this work appeared in the same year; if anything, we could reflect about the fact that three works of a crime in the sky, appeared in the same year, 1935.
But, as in the novels by King and Christie, the guilty should be sought among one of the passengers, in the novel by Vailati is not so: and then how was killed and transported away Agliati? Here, this is the pivot of the argument, which is in my view a real gem. And having imagined what the killer had used to simulate a belly that could be functional, idea that comes at a children's articles And he imagined what he had used the murderess to simulate a belly that could be functional idea that comes at a toy store and children's articles. Once again I must, however, think that the most beautiful locked rooms, at least the most spectacular, are the rooms that do not come by coincidence or by an unexpected or action only from the killer, but a sham operated with the aid more or less cooperative if not complicity of one or more persons, creating a true optical illusion.
From this point of view, the novel by Wollemborg / Vailati I can say it would be the envy of Christianna Brand, author of Tour de Force, novel a few years later, that resorts he same kind of staging. And more specifically, concerning the technique of impossible crime, it would envy to John Dickson Carr, author of The Crooked Hinge.
In fact with Dickson Carr, Wollemborg/Vailati shares a trick that is present with the same values in the two novels: in The Crooked Hinge, Carr uses something that would stretch the height of a person at will, in the novel by Vailati is instead something that can increase or less the abdominal circumference of a person at will. Two different things, but the same is the purpose: to cheat the present person and the reader. I do not know if Carr had read the novel by Vailati, but if it happened he would have to read it in Italian and I do not think he knew my language, so as to be able to read an entire book. What is certain is that Carr’s novel was published in 1938 while that by Vailati is from 1935.

(1) Where you find Rag. Larini, Rag(ioniere)  is in Italy the equivalent of "accountant" or "bookkeeper"  in England or US

Pietro De Palma

Saturday, April 25, 2015


Pierre Boileau, before he met Thomas Narcejac, wrote eight novels that gave him fame, and among them, too, "L' ASSASSIN VIENT LES MAINS VIDES" (1945).
Like other novels of Boileau, this begins without an introduction: Brunel and his companion, Pierre, who narrates the story, as usual, on the street, are almost run over by a former comrade of Pierre who then greets them warmly and invited them to best coffee on the Champs Elysees, where he will make know to the two cousin, Alex Fontaille. He, grandson of a landowner, Apolline Fontaille, who has grown up as a child, joined romantically with a note dancer of Parisian nightclubs, Monique Clerc. From the first moment, he doesn’t prove to be serene and yet insists that the two friends of his cousin, go with him to the estate of her aunt, Les Chaumes.
While they are in Paris, Brunel realizes that someone is keeping an eye on, and later recognize in this the personal home of the old Apollo, Simon.
The old, newly arrived, mistreats the other nephew, Georges, guilty of not having visited her in recent times, and welcomes newcomers with a lot of fuss.
Had the rooms, after dinner, Brunel, Pierre, Alex and his girlfriend, they decide to play bridge, after they smoked and drank, while Georges walks around outside in the garden. The old asks Alex to go to make an inspection and to close everything, that Alex does, and then returns by fellow: but while they are playing, they hear the loud voice, coming from the first floor, the room of the old:  find her stabbed, in a pool of blood. While Alex is to watch over the corpse of her aunt, Brunel and Pierre share the tasks: each goes up and other goes down. Pierre determines that if anyone had entered from the out in the house, he would be in front of Gustave, who was putting in place the crockery and cutlery used for dinner, so the murderer may be gone just above the second floor, where there are none. From the second floor, dropped only Simon, the domestic staff of Apolline Fontaille, trustworthy, with bare feet in slippers and robe bedroom tucked haphazardly in the pants: unless both he and the murderer, this must have disappeared: in fact, even if the window was open, being summer, the assailant could not have fallen, because on ivy that clings on the outside walls, you do not notice anything that might indicate that hypothesis. The murderer, if he’s not Simon, has “vanished into thin air”. But why Simon would kill the old woman? He had no reason to do it, the more he perceived a very high salary, not commensurate with his duties: if at first you suspect blackmail, then learns that Simon was very dear to the old woman who had raised him since he was little , saving him from the clutches of unnatural parents who beat us mercilessly even at an early age, and he had always countered with dedication and affection the care of his mistress. So Simon is ruled out, but then where is the murderer? And what Simon was doing in Paris? It’s clear, however, that he must know something he  doesn’t intend say, that can be put in connection with the murder of the old woman.
From examination of the body of the old woman, who is undoubtedly dead, we discover two very close wounds, signs of two stabs: the weapon is a sharp letter opener, found near the bedspread, with a handle inlaid, as to eliminate the possibility on it may be fingerprints.
While waiting for the next day the cops arrive, Pierre will watch, alternating with Brunel, the corpse of the old woman, in her room. But, Pierre falls asleep; at some point, however, he wakes, sweating from the tension, because he realizes that in the darkness of the room, there is someone else that moves: he would like to do something but does not have weapons and then thinks about what to do, while the other is taking the cards, which he hears the rustle of. Suddenly, he remembers the electric bell that the old woman had wanted in her room, to call Simon: he presses several times it, and shortly after he hears someone knocking at the door. After his invitation to come in, the light switch is pressed, the light shines in the room: Simon is on the door. But besides him, Pierre, in the room there is only the corpse of the old: unless it is a vampire, this time too the mysterious visitor has vanished.
Possible that is there a secret passage? Impossible. All deny it there is. So? How did the visitor to vanish? Brunel is doubtful, but Pierre insists. He also heard a rustle and a characteristic noise, like something that had been opened. Brunel has an epiphany: the secretaire. Open it, and there, from a drawer, see out a card: it is a holograph testament replacing another precedent: in it Georges Durbans is appointed sole heir. At this point, if you ever brought a growing possibility that he was the murderer (the rest he was in the garden, was the only one of the group, were not together at Brunel and Pierre) now he becomes more real, although Georges seems anything but a murderess. The strange thing is that the old woman had before prepared another testament that appointed Alex her heir: why that testament, then? Brunel curses for not  having examined immediately after the discovery of the corpse, the secretaire, because now is the double possibility: it is a testament true or false? Why did the visitor open the bureau? The testament, penned with calligraphy seems shaky, as if the hand that had thrown down was not entirely sure: the old or the murderer who has imitated the handwriting?
Not even the handwriting expert appointed the next day to make a judgment, will lean much: the testament would seem to be from old woman, but then he is not entirely sure.
While you can not get away from a spider hole by the woman's death, and Brunel concerns that something else could happen, here's a second murder, to disturb the atmosphere: Alex is killed, he also stabbed in the heart with a letter opener, very similar to the first. Pierre sees a shadow that falls from the window, he throws himself on him, but that man avoids him, instead of killing him too: why did he risk being taken, if he killed a man before, and now he did not want to attack Pierre instead?
Brunel investigates and discovers that shadow was someone who had met with Alex, who was the first husband of Monique, a gentleman. If he was not he killer of Alex, who did kill him? Simon, Monique, Gustave, Brigitte, or Georges? Since it wasn’t possible that the force required to launch the stab was from a woman, suspects are three men: Gustave, Simon or Georges?
Moreover, Alex, before being found dead, he had closed twice the door and about this Pierre was sure, because he had distinctly heard the two shots: but then, after the discovery of the corpse of Alex, they found the door house no longer closed: it means that there is an accomplice as well as a murderer, who apparently does not know that the murderer escaped from the window, because obviously the plan assumed that he had to escape through the same exit, so surely will have to go back down to close the door and prevent you might think about him as an accomplice, unless he is not Simon, who as butler, also has the task of asking and open the door in the morning. They will agree to watch over the door so as to catch the accomplice or not, in which case it would be true the other hypothesis. No one will come down. Brunel, after a sleepless night, will be able to name the killer and to solve the riddle, discovering how the robe of the woman had not two but a single cut, which is not properly screened in the reconstruction of the crime. And he will be able also to fulfill from the charge of complicity in the murder of Alex, Simon.
Novel highly enjoyable, it is based on an Impossible Murder and on a Locked Room, which a thief was able to evaporate from.
At the base of the riddle is the result of reasoning by Brunel: "the facts are presented as well: the murderer comes to his enemies ... without knowing exactly what he will do, and these terribly afraid that visit, but without power to predict how it will play . One does not have weapons to kill, others do not have weapons to defend themselves". In fact, twice the murderer has used something that was in the house, and then, it was not premeditated he killed, otherwise he would have brought a weapon. Yet he must have an accomplice, to premeditate to go into the home.Why?
Boileau, as at other times, he climbs on the mirrors: he demonstrates an unmatched virtuosity (equaled only by Vindry and Lanteaume), in proposing a problem and its solution, when he has few ingredients, which, moreover, is a bit the typicality of French novels of the period: insist on the mystery, propose one or more problems, attractive enough, without however enlarge the rose of suspicion, because not from the juxtaposition of alibis and motives must exit the solution, but from the proposition of the problem in itself, because in essence it is based on  the plot and its variations . In addition two other differences with the Anglo-Saxon novel occur: first there isn’t a real introduction, in which matures the crime, that is a typical feature of British detective novel instead (but not the US); and then, as a result, the French detective novel, and particularly that by Boileau, bases its plot on something that is done randomly, without that the reader has already seen or knows or at least images why a particular crime  is consumed: it is a novel, we might say, police-type-adventurous, heir of the atmosphere from feuelliton, a dramatized feuelliton, by Leroux and Leblanc; second difference, I would say, is inherent in the fact that, while the British detective story, just to be different from that of the appendix, where if there was a crime, you had to look for the woman and the butler, tends to present among suspected all the characters with the possible exclusion of the domestics (and this essentially for a social classism, almost racist, presenting the domestics a step lower than the nobility or the upper class, the only one that could consume a perfect crime, which for intelligence can not belong to a lower social order), in the French detective novel, as a consequence of the fact that domestic, bosses, police, investigating judges, all as part of their duties are citizens of the republic, even the servants are to be suspected like the masters.
This broadens the rose of the suspects, that, as we reported earlier, it is always quite small. This of course would lead to a job easier for detectives, and then there is the need to turn and re- turn over the tangle, not only to lengthen the stock (in fact the French novels of the time are not as long as those English) but also not to attenuate the narrative tension which otherwise would weaken naturally.
In the case of this novel, the specific character and insist on the topics that we have just pointed out, reveal a very subtle reasoning, a true virtuosity of the deduction and of the sophistry, I would say by Byzantine kind:  able to turn the problem, giving of each problem two or more possible solutions, from which we have many different solutions, which mainly concern here from: the will, true or false (it could be that the murderer had created a fake to create a perfect culprit, ie Georges; orit is false because posted by Georges, or is true, and then it was inserted long before by the old Fontaille); the thief invisible: how did he disappear; the problem of the lock of the front door and two turns, and about a possible accomplice; the problem of the existence of two wounds and that the robe presents a single cut; how did  disappear the murderer; why Alex did try to defend himself with a piece of wood taken from the fireplace (this was found clutched in his hand); why there is not an accomplice; what the murderer or the thief took from the secretaire.

Doing so, Boileau manages to keep the tension very high, and if so far the reader has had a few suspicions and then essentially was taken to concentrate his attention on very few, because two, Alex and Monique are kept out from their own investigations because they played, together to Brunel and Pierre,  bridge (a game that often appears in the novels of the time, by De Angelis to Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers to Stanislas-André Steeman), precisely during the solution, in which the suspence should cathartically fall, in this by Boileau, instead, it increases spasmodically because in a totally unexpected final, happens everything and its opposite. And everything is explained, as a murderer and a thief, different people, can vanish in an enclosed area without being detected, and as a murder in which there can not be an accomplice, he lacks; and finally as Simon, although not  murderer, let alone the killer's accomplice in the murder of Alex, he is in a sense an accomplice of another murderer, that of the old woman, although he can not in any way be involved in the murder of her.
Boileau really he is, because, and this is the biggest surprise, far from creating a novel based exclusively on clues, just in solution reveals a mechanism very cerebral, with a very pronounced psychological aspect, which concerns the way of shuffling the cards and turn the reader's attention, creating the conditions because, on the basis of acts very obvious, he is led to believe one thing instead of think of another. To give a measure of the mechanism of the highest stylistic virtuosity, I emphasize two particular moments which for me are the measure of true creativity and power of reasoning by Boileau: the closing the front door, and the volatilization of the thief after Simon knocked three times on the door of the room where is the corpse by Mrs. Apolline,  watched over by Pierre.
It is the mechanism of sound illusion, explained in a famous story by Clayton Rawson, From Another World, about which I wrote an article that I have not yet translated into English, in which I wrote that for the first time I had read about a sound illusion, and this had left me speechless. I was wrong. I thought that this was the first time that had been used such an illusion, and instead already three years before a French had used it: Pierre Boileau.
This novel reveals a pattern common with another novel, Six Crimes Sans Assassin, for the way in which the murderer leaves the scene. In this, and we also noticed in the case of La Promenade de minuit and Six Crimes Sans Assassin, Pierre Boileau tends to reuse in later novels, gimmicks and escamotages that he has already used his other previous.

A very magnificent novel!

Pietro De Palma