Melville House Publishing calls Giorgio Scerbanenco the “godfather of Italian noir,” in its blurb for A Private Venus, first published in 1966. Well, could be – how would I know? It’s part of The Milano Quartet, a look at the black, dirty underside of that city that seems to have a lot of noir in its cultural history (Manzoni, Stendhal) if you stretch the term a bit. And Duca Lamberti certainly is a classic noir male [anti]hero:
Then he took his Lisa Ussaro and drove her home. At the front door, they even shook hands, they might as well have said, “Thanks for the company.” He went back to the Cavour feeling completely nauseated with everything, starting with himself, but not with her.
And he doesn’t think to highly of the human species. He’s babysitting his sisters infant:
“…at one she drinks two hundred grams of milk with her eyes closed, almost without waking up, has a pee at the same time, and then she’s out like a light until tomorrow morning at six or seven. I’ve always thought that kind of vegetable life is the most civilized. I think civilization ends, at least for the human race, as soon as brain activity starts.”
Surely he understands that non-humans don’t have civilization, but his crackling cynicism sure is entertaining!
Duca is a doctor who has been barred from practicing, and spent time in prison, for a misstep early in his career when he empathized too much with a very sick old patient. His father was a policeman who was relegated to a desk job after his arm was mangled in an assassination attempt down south, where he was battling the Mafia. He wanted, “my son, the doctor,” but the son is a bit too much like the father, and shares his tendency to move outside the rules. That gets him in dangerous trouble. But he’s quite good at the crime gig, after all:
But Signor A had not appeared. They called him Signor A rather than Signor X, because the man wasn’t an unknown quantity: he was something specific, the chief pimp. Duca didn’t know his name or physical appearance, but he knew he existed. It’s like when you say the fattest man in Milan: you’ve never seen him, you don’t know if he’s a chemist or a restaurant owner, if he’s fair-haired or dark, but you know he exists, it’s just a matter of finding him and weighing him, and then you’ll immediately recognize him because he’s the one who weighs more than anyone else in Milan.
Very logical and systematic: he gets results. Faster than his friends, the police.
The plot is a bit haphazard at times, but the suspense propels it forward, and Duca’s character. You want to know if he will destroy himself or not. There’s an emotionally damaged young man he’s hired to wean off of drink, a job tossed to him by the police chief who is an old friend; the kid’s engineer-martinet father, a plot element that’s a bit of a red herring; a couple of young women with an awful lot of nerve and a bit too much intellectual curiosity; and some very creepy types running an European sex-traffic operation. The title isn’t mentioned in the text, but the racket uses a photo-album to allow customers to pick out the girls they want delivered: Everyone gets his private Venus, I guess.
The Mafia is a major presence in the book, but only as background, and as the unseen masters of the sex-ring. Like the book Takedown, and the Italian films, Mafioso and Gomorrah, its take on the mob is totally unsentimental and unromantic: they are a bunch of brutal, murderous, gangsters, a cancer on the body of society. It’s hard for me to imagine an Italian claiming, as people have for The Godfather, that the mob, even in fiction, is somehow a critical representation of capitalism…