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

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