Article published on August 8, 2018.
The Inspector Peroni mysteries
I was intrigued to find this series of novels in Bromley House Library (a little gem in Nottingham!). Born in 1928, Timothy Holme began his working life in the theatre, but after seven years of acting, he reluctantly switched to journalism. During a holiday in Italy he met and then married his Italian teacher, Bianca, and lived in the country until his tragic early death aged just 59.
Inspector Achille Peroni was Neapolitan by birth but he takes on a lot of influences from Anglophile police work – except, of course, for a huge amount of wine drinking and over interest in any passing beautiful young woman! Peroni was introduced in The Neapolitan Streak with his usual casual but highly effective methods of investigation in a plot that mixed a literary subplot in Verona with concerns about neo-fascism alongside murder. Later, Peroni is seconded to Venice as Commissario for A Funeral of Gondolas where, amongst the crumbling masonry of the impoverished aristocracy, he finds criminals who are linked to the 18th century Venetian playwright and librettist Goldoni. Holme was later to write an acclaimed biography of Carlo Goldoni.
If you love Italy, you will travel well alongside Peroni, for in each novel Holme moves the inspector around many wonderful locations, as in The Assisi Murders where once again a deadly trail links to the past history of the area and connections to the famous St Francis himself. In The Devil and the Dolce Vita the policeman is drawn to a beautiful but missing American girl and finds his own life finds under threat from satanists. My favourite was At the Lake of Sudden Death where Peroni falls for a beautiful red-headed English woman (a theme emerges, you will find!), but then finds her dead because of her investigation into stolen gold during Mussolini’s last days of power.
Sometimes the plots are highly off-beat excursions and Peroni is very unconventional in his methods, but the author’s love for Italy and detailed descriptions of beautiful locations push the novels along to successful conclusions. You’ll learn a lot about both historical and literary events in Italy alongside the blood and often theatrically set murders. If you like Donna Leon, you will like these books, especially as they move beyond the often visited Venice. What a shame Holme died too early to see the potential of his novels coming to the small screen and reviving his long lost love of acting.
Golden Oldie: The Devil and the Dolce Vita by Timothy Holme (1982)
Philipa’s feature on Timothy Holme reminded me that The Devil and the Dolce Vita was sitting on one of my bookshelves. So, intrigued, I dug the novel out, I hope this review compliments her piece. As with all old books I worried that the writing might prove dated, in fairness there are terms and phrases that wouldn’t get into a modern thriller, but there is nothing anachronistic about The Devil and the Dolce Vita. The novel is pacy and imaginative, at times a bit whacky, but it has the authentic feel of a well-crafted setting. Holme is an entertaining writer with an attuned sense of structure in the mystery story.
A helicopter flies over the seaside resort of Jesolo Lido, near Venice, the crew are eyeing the girls on the beach rather than doing their job. They are supposed to looking out for trouble or problems along the coast but then: “Nothing ever happens in Jesolo.” Of course we know those are famous last words! Wendell Banner is a journalist doing a feature on five day wonders (fifteen minutes of fame). The subject is Captain Luigi ‘Gigi’ Caliselli, leader of the Free Jesolo Movement. For a brief period two years ago they declared independence from Italy under the terms of an eighteenth century prerogative granted by the Doge to the descendants of the Coliselli family. My first thought was Passport to Pimlico but this quirky opening develops into a much darker tale. Only a bit of political jiggery-pokery by the Prime Minister makes the issue go away. However, Banner gets the distinct impression that Coliselli thinks the movement is not yet dead.
Jesolo photographer, Benito Mussolini (yes, really), is back at the police station, the questura, explaining to a detective that he can’t figure out why his shop was broken into but only photographs were stolen. Both we and the policeman know that this is important, but the thief was clever enough to steal many photos, not just the incriminating one.
In Venice, Commissario Achille Peroni receives a report of a missing tourist, Kekzio Maisheilais (?). He has no idea if it’s a man or a woman, the only answer is to go to Jesolo Lido to investigate. The local officer has taken the report from a Scottish witness and the early language confusion is a little comic touch before the darkness settles in. Luckily Peroni speaks English and he finds out Kehzia Michaelis is a twenty-five-year-old American. She has a tent on the beach but she hasn’t been seen for two days. Kehzia is a singer in the local restaurant, Dolce Vita, owned by Gigi Coliselli. Peroni starts to find the people who knew Kehzia, but the local priest won’t say why she came to visit him regularly and her colleagues at the restaurant say she probably just went off with some guy.
Rita is an old lady and her memory isn’t what it used to be, but when she reads about the missing girl she reports to Peroni. The empty house across the road from her own was the scene of a party a couple of nights ago. Rita is sure she saw a man carrying a girl out to one of the cars and drive off. Rita is convinced the girl was dead. It’s a blow to Peroni. The investigation leads to black magic and devil worship, a circle of rich and bored satanists. Peroni gets sucked into their circle, his Neapolitan soul curious about the mystical, but he’s really attempting to find out what happened to the American woman. This case will mess with Peroni’s sanity before plunging him into real physical danger.
The Devil and the Dolce Vita is a complex tale that brings us subtly toward the darkness. The stolen photograph re-emerges and the Free Jesolo Movement come back into the story. There is a poetic melding of plot lines that creates a thrillingly spooky denouement. One of the best features of the novel is Commissario Peroni, a self-declared Neapolitan gutter kid, is a mix of gentle heart and tough exterior. Finding the young woman really matters to him. The Devil and the Dolce Vita has an atmosphere and cracking pace, it’s a really decent read.
Paul Burke introduces three excellent crime novels from PM Press