“The police here aren’t going to find either an Italian or an American murderer. Not at the rate they’re going. They just aren’t doing anything. They don’t seem to grasp even the first principles of investigating a crime.”
Miss Julia Tyler is finally making the trip to Rome she’s always dreamed of. Practically the moment she arrives, however, she runs into an acquaintance whose well-meaning invitations are seriously disrupting her sightseeing. As a retired Latin teacher, Miss Julia is more interested in ancient Romans than modern ones—until she learns that one of her new friends is Jane Steele, the heiress whose secretary was just found dead under mysterious circumstances.
It doesn’t take long before the feisty spinster is investigating murder, fraud, and adultery among the Italian nobility. Life may be sweet in Rome, but someone is making sure it’s also brutally short.
See Rome and Die is the airy, amusing tale of an innocent abroad. There’s plenty of detecting here, but the emphasis is on the frank observations of a Southern lady who finds that 1950s Rome is just as much Borgia as it is Fellini. Miss Julia’s relentless opinions, about everything, are slightly oppressive early on. Nothing in Rome seems to be as good as it is in Rossville, Virginia. Romans drive like maniacs. They don’t eat dinner until 10 p.m. Bishops go to cocktail parties here! Once she gets hold of a good murder, however, Miss Julia learns to do as the Romans do, and her crankiness gives away to charm.
Miss Julia enters high society through Princess Jane di Ricci, a frequent divorcee who is “hard on husbands the way some people were hard on nylon stockings.” She is most excited to meet Kate Steele, famous philanthropist and force of nature. Along with her husband, Count Amaldi, she operates orphanages and a massive foster-child fund. Much to Miss Julia’s surprise, however, the great Kate Steele proves to be a vague old lady in orthopedic shoes. She insists that her secretary Marjorie Vining committed suicide, which the police seem to accept a little too easily.
It’s up to Miss Julia to uncover what is really going on behind the palazzo walls. With the help of Fulbright scholar Bill Grant, she manages to carry out a dogged investigation without neglecting what’s really important: her sightseeing.
“Well, it’s only the small minds that worry about fingerprints and things anyway,” I offered. “That’s what Hercule Poirot says. He says you can sit perfectly still and use your little gray cells and get there faster. Of course, you have to have a lot of little gray cells.”
“Who is Hercule Poirot?”
Shocked, I explained about the greatest detective in the world and his even more famous creator. Bill hadn’t heard about Agatha Christie either. I began to think I hadn’t picked out a very good person to collaborate with on this crime.
There are intriguing glimpses of life in postwar Italy; during a day trip to Naples, Miss Julia is more struck by the wretched poverty of the slums surrounding the city than the artifacts of Pompeii that she came to see. Overall, however, she doesn’t stray far from the glitz of Rome.
The Flora bar was something to see. We were early, according to the Roman timetable if not to mine, and the real crowd hadn’t come yet, they told me. Later, people would be standing three or four deep around the bar. But there were too many people for my taste already, the varied types that made you realize what a meeting place Rome really was. The emphasis was on middle-aged tourists, of course, a lot of them South American for some reason. But the movie colony was there in force, the beautiful long-legged girls with no makeup and their hair, whether it was long or short, skinned off their faces as if to prove what trying styles they could get away with, the prosperously tailored, not so beautiful movie executives. There were quite a lot of American college boys with crew haircuts and college girls with big bags; and there were some indeterminate Italian hangers-on, enjoying themselves most loudly of all.
For full glamour value, there is a subplot involving espionage in the world of high fashion. Tongues are still wagging over the spectacle of Duchess Gina Pontecardo appearing at Countess Elisabetta Frangipani’s fashion show…wearing the exact gown that was supposed to be the centerpiece of Elisabetta’s new collection. As frivolous as it may seem to kill over a stolen dress design, there is big money involved, and Miss Julia cannot rule it out as a possible motive for murder.
Everyone is very sophisticated. After the second or third time someone describes a relationship in their circle by referencing The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, Miss Julia must ask for clarification. Upon learning it’s a sordid tale of gigolos and their keepers written by Tennessee Williams, she feels on solid ground again. After all, “my father knew his grandfather. Everybody in the Episcopal Church felt mighty sorry for him.” The conventional young lovers are also present, two sets of them, but with an astringent continental twist. One pair is adulterous, just waiting for the lady’s rich old husband to die, and everyone is fine with that. Miss Julia’s self-centeredness is a blessing to the reader. She barely pays attention to the various love affairs, sparing the reader a double dose of romance. There is only room for murder in Miss Julia’s heart.
The climax is one of the strangest I’ve ever come across. It somehow manages to be both shocking and anticlimactic at the same time. Perhaps it’s appropriate that this theatrical moment would take place against the chaos of a film shoot on the city streets, with the prospect of seeing Gina Lollobrigida in the flesh luring out all of the suspects.
See Rome and Die is not the most rigorous murder mystery, as Miss Julia overlooks clues that could not seem more obvious. I’m still not sure if the ending is a brilliant subversion of detective-story tropes, or if it’s just weird. Still, this is a delightful Roman holiday enlivened by a number of characters who seem to have busy lives of their own that exist outside the bounds of the novel. Miss Julia can be hard to take at times, but she is so stubbornly herself that the reader can’t help being won over.
In fact there are too many characters and too much plot – all kinds of sidelines and red herrings, and it was really hard to keep everyone straight. But none of that matters in the slightest – it was a most enjoyable romp through the Italy of the 1950s.
Julia is perhaps the epitome of what an amateur detective should be in fiction. Having no real encounter with real crime but relying only on the fanciful stories of mystery writers she follows the tenets and practices of her favorite characters. With an inquisitive nature and a forthright yet slightly devious way of asking prying questions she gathers information and sifts through the chatty anecdotal dialogue that makes up the bulk of the book. But she doesn’t ever really come to any conclusions. She may be the narrator, we may get to know all the characters through her often patronizing point of view, but as a detective she is unsuccessful. She has hunches but is always missing something important – usually a motive. The cases are always solved by someone else in the story.
See Rome and Die is out of print, but seems to be one of the more widely available titles by Louisa Revell.