When the sad, beautiful Signora Giulia goes missing without a trace from her Lake Como villa home, it is her husband who reports her disappearance to the detective Sciancalepre, and so the search begins - one that takes Sciancalepre beneath the tranquil surface of local bourgeois society, a world of snobbery and secrets, while mysterious shadows lurk in the grounds of the family villa . . . As his investigation gathers pace this atmospheric classic detective story becomes a thrilling game of legal cat and mouse.
Piero Chiara was an award winning Italian writer who is little known outside his native country. I am not sure how representative The Disappearance Of Signora Giulia is for the rest of his work, but judged by its merits as a mystery novel alone this is not a very satisfying work.
A very short novel of about 122 pages, it starts out intriguingly enough. It seems like your typical missing persons case: Signore Giulia is the wife of a prominent criminal lawyer, one day she disappears from home. Has she walked out on her husband? Did she leave to start a new life with a lover? Her husband was much older than her which makes the probability of an affair likely, but the investigating detective does not believe that she would have just left her only daughter behind. With every passing day it becomes more likely that Signora Giulia became the victim of a violent crime.
I found it shocking to read that adultery was still considered a serious offence in 1950’s Italy and people engaging in extra-marital affairs could be prosecuted by the law. There is one scene where the detective Sciancalepre pays a visit to one of Signora Guilia’s potential love interests finding him in bed with another married woman and assuring her that at least for now she has nothing to fear from him since he is investigating a different case. However this social criticism is very slight and barely goes any deeper in unmasking the bigotry of a society living by outdated laws. It is just one of several disappointments in a novel that has neither enough depth nor narrative ingenuity to really satisfy.
The summary makes the tale sound like a multi-layered, complex investigation, but the plot is actually quite simple. Barely has the police investigation begun as it already comes to an end. The small number of suspects means that there is no real surprise once the culprit is unmasked.
Unfortunately the book seems like a typical example of a “serious” writer dabbling in genre fiction while missing the point of what mysteries are really about. The characters remain too distant and shallow for the story to work as a psychological drama and the puzzle plot annoyingly culminates in an open ending. The author’s intention might have been to say something about the slippery nature of truth and the lack of satisfying endings in real life, with the consequence that the denouement is anticlimactic and dull.
So, ultimately I did not care much for The Disappearance Of Signora Giulia. It works neither as gripping genre fiction nor as a complex examination of crime and its consequences.