Tuesday Night Club: Death in Italy

The Tuesday Night Club has chosen Foreign MysteriesLogo as this month’s theme – as usual, in any way the blogger likes to interpret it.

Bev at My Reader’s Block has produced another great logo for us, and she is also collecting the links this month.

Anyone is welcome to join in, either as a one-off or on a regular basis. Just contact one of us.

For the first two weeks I looked at Agatha Christie’s mysteries set in the Near East – Appointment With Death, Murder in Mesopotamia and They Came to Baghdad. I very much enjoyed re-reading these three books, but I had happened to mention that I had chosen them because I couldn’t think of any foreign GA authors that I had read (except perhaps Simenon). So blogfriend and fellow Tuesday Nighter Kate Jackson suggested a 1942 Italian novel set in a Milan fashion house… perfect!

Kate has reviewed this book over on her Cross Examining Crime blog, and she explains more about the background of the author there – strongly recommend you read her take on this book.

The Mystery of the Three Orchids by Augusto de Angelis

published 1942

translated by Jill Foulston, published in English 2016

Mystery of the Three Orchids 3
The mirror before her, high on the wall, reflected an image of her tall, gracious form in a dress of clinging red silk. A magnificent body, like that of a crouching panther. But her face— her extremely odd, asymmetrical face, with a high forehead under a helmet of black hair, thin, arched eyebrows and small, twitchy snub nose above a heart-shaped mouth— looked exhausted. Her face, whose impassive mask she knew, hadMystery of the Three Orchids betrayed her this time, and had twisted in a spasm of terror that made it hateful to her. She would gain control of herself whatever the cost. She looked around at the ladies seated on sofas and armchairs along the walls and tried to smile. By this time, all three showrooms were full. Milan’s very best clients, the richest— truly the ideal clients for a great fashion house— had accepted her invitation, and now she was about to faint in that very spot, in front of everyone…

[There’ve been disasters at the fashion house, but the catwalk shows must continue…]

Irma threw the towel and her nail file in the air. “I told you so.Mystery of the Three Orchids 2 Eleven-thirty, and it’s starting already. This whole day is going to be a laugh, just wait and see! And after yesterday’s crimes, the clients will be coming in droves to see the designs, just to snoop. It stinks of corpses in here!” She opened the wardrobe and slid through the numbers. “I knew it. Number 2437 is the one I hate!”

She took the hanger and removed the garment, throwing it on the carpet. Quickly wriggling out of her skirt, she tugged at her jacket zipper and she too appeared in her white silk chemise, tall and imposing as a young willow. “Quick, Papina. Get the trousers ready for me. It’s just the right day for beachwear!” Papina’s … hands were so quick and lively that one couldn’t even feel her buttoning up a dress, lacing a belt or pulling a skirt round the hips to adjust it. She took the blue trousers and yellow sash from the wardrobe for Irma.

commentary: There was a lot to love about this book. I’m sure it’s the first Italian detective story of its era that I have read, and the clothes in it are magnificent:
dressed for evening in black leather embroidered with black pearls in the form of a horse-chestnut leaf…

Her yellow bathing costume with black stripes made her look like some sort of strange animal, perhaps a cross between a chimp and a zebra. [She wore] rope sandals…

“May is the month for clothes in brightly coloured fabrics and prints with floral allegories, feathers and underwater landscapes… such is the ravishing design that we now present”

Clara, dressed in black silk, walked in wearing shiny silver leather sandals with cork soles and heels over ten centimetres high.

All the trappings of the crime and mystery were splendid, and the characters were interesting: it seemed to me in the end that de Angelis had got all that right, but hadn’t done enough with plot and clues. And I kept ON having a problem with the names. There are two separate characters called Anna, for no particular reason. Christiana O’Brian didn’t seem a very likely name for an Italian fashion house, and Prospero O’Lary seemed an unlikely name full stop. But not content with being Prospero, he has the nickname Oremus, which is never explained. It is Latin for ‘Let us pray’ and would have been used in church at that time, but it seemed an unnecessary addition, as the two names for him were used fairly randomly. I use the search function on my Kindle a lot, and it can show me a search history for a book – in this case, the searches were on a long list of first names, as I found the names so confusing and difficult.

But perhaps I am being too picky – this was a very enjoyable book, a very easy read, and I was delighted to get an idea of an Italian book of the era. Pushkin Press, who have published it in the UK this year, say that for a long time Italians thought there could be no home-grown detective fiction, but Augusto de Angelis wasn’t having it. ‘He saw crime fiction as the natural product of his fraught and violent times: “The detective novel is the fruit – the red, bloodied fruit of our age.”’ He was very political, very left-wing – I was surprised there weren’t more of his views intrinsic in the book.

Don’t forget to go over to Kate’s blog to read more about this book and its author, and to see what she might be up to for Tuesday Night Club’s Foreign Crime meme this week.

Woman in scarlet is blog favourite William Orpen’s portrait of Madame Errazuriz from the Athenaeum website

The b/w photo is a red velvet dress from 1935, from Kristine’s photostream, as is the woman in beach pyjamas.


  1. Always feel nervous once I have recommended a book to someone. Glad this one was okay for you. The yellow swimming costume was one I remembered too, mainly because I couldn't quite decide what a cross between a zebra and a chimp would look like.

    1. I know what you mean about being nervous, but I did enjoy this one.
      I kept thinking, re striped swimsuit, do they not have bees and wasps for comparison purposes in Italy? Any English writer would surely have been unable to resist that comparison.

    2. Yes, an automatic American reply would be "bumblebee."

    3. I'll have to check with Italian friends!

  2. It certainly is your sort of setting and context, Moira! So I'm very glad you enjoyed as much as you did about the book. But I do know just exactly what you mean about names. Sometimes those sorts of issues stop me in my tracks, too. Still, it sounds as though there's a lot to like in this one, and I'm glad.

    1. Yes indeed, the pluses compensated for the minuses!

  3. I imagine if you were very left wing in 1942 Italy you might not want to broadcast it in your writing...

    1. Fair point, but I think he wasn't hesitant in other contexts, from what I can tell. Perhaps crime writing was his time off from politics.

  4. Sounds very interesting. I have read and enjoyed other older mysteries set in the fashion world so I imagine I would like this.

    1. Might be worth a look for you. I entertained myself thinking about what things would be different if it had been an English crime author writing the same story.


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