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.
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!