#658: The Flying Boat Mystery (1935) by Franco Vailati [trans. Igor Longo 2019]

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Eleven of the twelve passengers in a boat plane making a trip across Italy watch the twelfth head to the front of the plane and lock himself in the tiny toilet cubicle. Thirty minutes later, when he has not emerged, someone else impatiently bangs on the door and insists the current occupant allows others to avail themselves of the conveniences. No reply is forthcoming. When the door is broken down, having been bolted in the expected manner, there is no sign of the passenger, nor any exit large enough to admit his egress (he was rather too, ahem, corpulent to have slipped through the skylight).  So…where is he?  And, more to the point, how did he get there?

As translator Igor Longo’s excellent afterword explains, the Italian contribution to the classic mystery novel has been rather scant, and this is my own first experience of that country’s take on the Grandest Game in the World.  In many ways, it conforms to expectations — we see the majority of the action via the viewpoint of journalist Giorgio Vallesi (who, on account of his friendship with policeman Luigi Renzi, is allowed to be far more present at all aspects of the investigation than should probably be legally possible), there is romance in Vallesi’s (slightly creepy, it has to be said) pursuit of the beautiful Marcella Arteni, and there is plenty of intelligent speculation on the nature of the crime under consideration:

[H]ow could any murderer foresee the banker’s visit to the toilet at exactly the right moment?  And what if another person had fallen into the trap?  In any case, the bigwig’s statement rendered and external intervention in the toilet quite impossible.  it was ridiculous to think that someone could have already been hidden in that small space, and all the passengers were present and accounted for when the banker entered the toilet.

Sure, they may have been a bit quiet on the puzzle novel front, but clearly the Italians have done their reading.

Rather like Death in Paradise, all of the passengers — at least, those not determined to be too socially impressive to sequester — have some element of mystery to their presence on the plane, and so a moderate amount of time is spent unpicking who is who and why they lie.  In a way, this gives the enterprise a feeling of a short story collection, as we confront dodgy financial dealing, the occlusion of identity, and, at a later stage, an examination of the whereabouts of certain suitcases that is delightfully technical in its inferences even if the premise at the heart of it is inherently flawed.  Slowly, slowly, the maverick Renzi and the dogged, unimaginative Inspector Boldrin chase down the leads and, if it gets a little samey having to exclude everyone, there is at least plenty of historical information to revel in: there’s a parochial charm in an age when planes carried twelve people, and the passengers were free to wander into the cockpit to talk with the pilots, and these touches litter the book as expected.

Problems do crop up in certain regards, not least the stalkerish behaviour of Valessi in dogging the footsteps of his intended…made all the weirder by how she — having been understandably annoyed by his invasion of her every moment — just capitulates in the middle of a chapter and is suddenly and inexplicably in a deeply passionate relationship with him.  I’m not getting woke about the nature of consent, it’s just bloody odd.  Equally, the idea that the numbers which are found in…a certain place would be written in that place (they had paper in Italy in the 1930s, right?  And the clothes had pockets?) is hilariously unlikely enough to stick out as the ligament necessary to keep the plot together, and so is rendered even less believable.

I’m also not entirely sure that the ‘diagram’ Renzi uses the solve the crime really solves anything…but, well, that’s one of those weird frills of culture, I suspect, that you either go for or you don’t.  The solution to the murder has both a predictability and a terrible unlikeliness about it, relying as it does on the sort of scheme that sounds far, far easier written down that it would be to affect.  A lovely bit of reasoning produces the body of our victim, so it’s not without its strong points, but this also feels like a lot of effort to reach what would be a good false solution but is in fact the real one.  The journey gets a little tedious, even if it is livened up by a magnificent reveal just past the halfway stage, and you can feel Vailati’s inexperience in juggling his pieces — written 10 years earlier this might be more acceptable, but by 1935 the puzzle novel was in full swing and a higher standard can be reasonably expected.

Longo’s translation is delightful, though, bringing out some wonderful expressions, such as our vanishing banker arriving at the plane at the very last minute “like a fat boy arriving at the dinner table, red-faced and ashamed for his lateness” or Renzi having acceded to he involvement of an influential relative in his career “in the hope that it would help him escape betrothal to the awful cousin his uncle had earmarked for him”.  Equally, Signora Martelli is perhaps poorly served by Vailati’s initial description of her — he seems singularly hung up on how attractive all women are, were, or might be — but it got a laugh out of me all the same, and some lovely turns of phrase can be found: a great moment sees a suspect reacting to shocking news before “his eyes returned to being impenetrable bulwarks”.  Even when the story isn’t at its sharpest, Longo’s rendering of it undoubtedly does an excellent job throughout.

So, The Flying Boat Mystery is an entertaining if inessential entry in the annals of the puzzle novel, and as such is highly recommended to those among you who wish to achieve a wider appreciation of this form.  Anyone interested in only the peak of the impossible crime can skip over it without too much regret, but equally buying it might enable us to sample the works of Guglielmo Somalvico, whom Longo likens to “a sort of minor Italian Rupert Penny” — which I think is something everyone wants to see.  Not just me.  Everyone.


See also

Brad @ AhSweetMysteryBlog: Since Italian writers had no historical precedent to play off of – no Poe, Collins, Chesterton or the like to inspire them – a lot of their crime fiction clearly pointed to American and British influences. There’s a snappy tone throughout here, both in the dialogue and in the action. Similarly, while the beginning and the end hearken to Carr, with its striking beginning and tie-it-all-together finale, much of the middle reminds me of American pulps.

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: Once you figured out the basic principle behind the trick, the problem is still far from solved and you can even say that it becomes more complicated. Vailati showed the craftsmanship of a Golden Age writer with a beautifully done, partially false-solution to explain the second part of the vanishing-trick before Renzi shows the reader what really happened with a simple diagram – destroying a well-hidden alibi in the process. What a shame this was Vailati’s only detective novel!

16 thoughts on “#658: The Flying Boat Mystery (1935) by Franco Vailati [trans. Igor Longo 2019]

  1. I always like a good map, and I guess you could argue that the map here helps a bit. Really, though, I always loved maps as illustrations. I have a feeling that topography may or may not be instrumental in solving the massacre of the Inugamis – time will tell – but I could really use a floor plan of the complex villa that keeps getting described. And add the village, the lake, and all else while you’re at it. Just sayin’ . . .


    • Is there a map? There’s no map in my Kindle edition — there’s a layout of the plane, and the weird table/diagram thing that Renzi uses to apparently prove…something at the end, but I don’t remember a map at any point. I’ll be vexed if I’ve been robbed of a map, let me tell you 🙂

      As to The Inugami Curse, I assume it takes place over a number of months, and you’re reading it in real time for verisimilitude…


      • As to The Inugami Curse, I assume it takes place over a number of months, and you’re reading it in real time for verisimilitude…

        Hardy-har-har . . (And not that far from the truth!)


          • I see that instead you’ve elected for a much more obscure read next Thursday. It would be interesting if you followed up Yellow Room with The Witch of the Low Tide, given the references that Carr makes (no spoilers in knowing that).


            • Ha. Well, let’s see. I’m on a very “Yeah, I think I could go for that” comfort reading diet at present, but I’m also probably gonna do the rest of Carr chronologically, not least because I haven’t read so many of his later ones.

              Paul Halter will definitely come up again in the weeks ahead, as will a couple of inverted mysteries since Aidan got my brain churning in that podcast episode. And Yokomizo, too, because I want to read The Inugami Curse before Brad 🙂


  2. Hmm sounds like one I can safely skip, though I do enjoy reading about non-UK/USA GAD. My only experience of Italian detective fiction from that era is from the 3-4 books by Augusto De Angelis I’ve read.
    Valessi sounds a bit like Nigel Strangeways in The Morning After Death. Still unimpressed with his conduct in that book lol


  3. Even if this wasn’t a top notch read, I’m still enthusiastic about Locked Room International (and any other takers…) opening up the vaults of countries like Italy. I won’t be rushing, but I’ll be picking this up eventually – it’s nice that LRI keeps their full library available and we’re not shelling out $40-60 for second hand copies of the 10 year old releases.

    I’d love to see some of the Jorge Luis Borges mystery novels get translated. I’ve only been able to find short stories by him, but they’ve all been brilliant so far. Take Theme of the Traitor and Hero as an example: it isn’t even a short story. Rather, it’s Borges writing down the a plot idea for a story, and you’ll weep that it never got fleshed out into novel form. Of course, if you haven’t read anything by him, start with The Garden of Forking Paths.


    • LRI continue to do amazing work in u earthing this sort of title — it didn’t set my world on fire, but it opened a lot of doors in terms of the picture of GAD in Europe (Igor’s afterword is genuinely superb). And, c’mon, the world’s not so off its axis that an impossible vanishing has no appeal to me — I’m still human!


  4. I started this a few months ago but I never managed to finish it (nothing wrong with it – just a bad time to read because of a work project). It is good to know that it wasn’t essential but I would still like to get back to it as I do love the idea of the disappearance.


    • I’ve talked before about how the principle of the Golden Age puzzle novel is built on two foundations, and this employs both of them. One is nicely handled, and the other is the element of the scheme that I don’t think is anywhere near as easy in reality as it sounds in print (and, if anyone remembers what I sad those two foundations are, no I don’t mean in the way round you’re thinking of them). But it’s not without merit, and hopefully this is a sign of more interesting Italian-and-surrounds puzzle fiction on the way…


  5. …you can feel Vailati’s inexperience in juggling his pieces — written 10 years earlier this might be more acceptable, but by 1935 the puzzle novel was in full swing and a higher standard can be reasonably expected.

    You’re not really being fair here. Longo mentioned “authentic Italian mystery fiction essentially started from scratch in the thirties” and don’t think its fair to hold Italian mystery from that period to the same standard as the Anglo or Gallic detective story, which had the time and space to develop. Edogawa Rampo’s early locked room stories, “The Case of the Murder on D. Hill” and “The Stalker in the Attic,” were, plot-technically, not the most impressive impossible crimes penned during the 1920s, but they formed the foundation stones of the honkaku and shin honkaku period. So, in that light, The Flying Boat Mystery is quite impressive coming from a writer and country new to the game. And it was a one-off!


    • Well, sure, but all critical reasoning has to be put into its wider context — otherwise every book is as good as could have been produced at the time and is worthy of five stars 🙂 There’s no way Italian mystery fiction wasn’t aware of the Gallic and Anglo traditions — it was Italy, not Atlantis — and so the school into which this places itself has to count for something,

      Hey, either way, it’s a good effort, and a very interesting read; I’m with you in feeling it a real shame that there’s no more Vailati to read, since it would have been interesting to see how he developed from here. Given how many authors wrote middling first books and then later absolutely brilliant ones, it’s tempting to speculate at how much he could have brought to the genre…


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