Italian writer Piero Chiara’s The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is a slim novel that will draw readers in and keep them hooked all the way to the end and beyond with the promise of resolving tantalizing questions that will never get answered. The novel takes us into an idyllic setting near Milan, in the breathtakingly scenic Lombardian region of Italy, where a beautiful woman has disappeared. The mystery of how she disappeared, where and why, is what drives the narrative, told through the perspective of the police investigator and commissioner for public safety Corrado Sciancalepre who becomes obsessed with solving the case. In the process, he uncovers the secret life that this lovely, high-society, apparently popular woman has been leading. Also along the way, the writer in a subtle manner exposes the sordid reality and darkness that underlie the relationships and the justice system of the area and its inhabitants.
The novel opens by letting the reader into the life and work of Sciancalepre. He clearly loves his work, and getting into the personal affairs of the people in the area. He even likes the petty criminals he occasionally nabs, and they “almost” enjoy being caught by him. He also likes “reconciling married couples and putting their kids on the straight and narrow.” For someone like him, who is practically “an institution” priding himself on his knowledge about everyone’s personal issues, the disappearance of Signora Giulia is almost a personal affront. This sense of personal affront gets exacerbated as he finds out more and more about her that he didn’t know.
On another level, there are the legal, moral and ethical issues raised by the disappearance of this society woman into thin air. Her husband, the lawyer Esengreni tells the police officer that he suspects his wife was having a secret affair and has run off with a lover. Sciancalepre gets Esengreni to write a complaint suspecting adultery as this will make it easier for him as a police officer to pursue the case. Sciancalepre is apparently intent on getting her back. But is his zeal based in professionalism or a secret fascination with the woman that so many men had their eyes on? As Chiara leads us through the sequence of events that unfold, it becomes apparent that Sciancalepre had indeed watched Guilia closely, to the extent of recognizing a piece of jewellery that she always wore on her breast when the bag is discovered.
In any case, nothing is as it seems in the town of “M_____.” The man Guilia had been seen with, initially identified by her husband, is clearly not the culprit. There was indeed a lover, but as events unfold, it becomes apparent that he too, could not possibly have had a hand in her disappearance.
The town is abuzz about the vanishing act but the real emotion that many people feel more than concern for her safety seems to be indignation that she left without taking them into confidence. Or they are concerned that she was having an affair – shocking. There is no genuineness about people’s feelings for Giulia as a person in this elite, classist society. Even her daughter doesn’t seem particularly torn up that her mother has disappeared. Chiara doesn’t really get into people’s emotions but he skilfully exposes the shallowness of those who claim to care about a woman who seems to have disappeared into thin air. Gossip is rife in the town of “M______,” and many speculate that the husband has something to do with the situation. How could he not know, they wonder. The age difference between the couple – Esengreni is twenty years older than his wife – also becomes a point of discussion.
This old-school detective story raises many questions about the unpredictability and complexity of human nature. Chiara shows us how similar are the disappeared woman’s husband, a noted lawyer, and a lowly but intelligent gardener who seems to also be a social-climber. Both men, despite the class differences that still exist in Italy at that time, try to frame each other. Who is the real culprit? The unexpected ending, with a huge twist at the end, doesn’t reveal either this, or the reason for Guilia’s disappearance.
Even when her suitcase is found, the jewellery is missing right. Sciancalepre is confident that finding the jewellery will lead to the person responsible for Guilia’s disappearance. But even when that is found, the mystery is not solved.
Chiara, who worked in the courts, as well as in journalism and teaching before retiring early to become a writer, has an intricate knowledge of criminal courts and behaviour that he draws upon for this engaging little novel. Originally published in 1970, this was his first work to be translated into English.
One of Italy’s most acclaimed post-war writers, Chiara was a politically engaged, anti-fascist activist. Sciancalepre, the main character of this book, is also driven by the need to provide justice. The story Chiara has woven makes the reader realize how fragile the justice system is, something that we in modern-day America can relate to even today. We see how easy it is to make false accusations that are totally convincing, and how people get away, with no one being punished, despite a serious crime having been committed.
The Disappearance of Signora Giulia