- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 31, 2005

INDECENT SECRETS: THE INFAMOUS MURRI MURDER AFFAIR

By Christina Vella

Free Press, $26, 395 pages, illus.

The ghastly killing at the center of Christina Vella’s engrossing “Indecent Secrets: The Infamous Murri Murder Affair” sets off events that held Italy in thrall from 1902-1906.

The murder victim, Count Francesco Bonmartini of Bologna, was by most measures an inoffensive, wealthy, titled landowner who grew to be loathed by his young wife, her brother, their father and a number of friends and assorted servants. Together, the circle of antagonists plotted and carried out a plan that ended the 33-year-old nobleman’s life and offered legions of unabashed scandal-watchers years of material to debate and — human nature being what it is — relish.

This book, no less than the passions it describes is a feast of guilty pleasures. Forget about O.J. Simpson and Claus von Bulow. In these pages, readers will find more than just one celebrity criminal to loathe. Moreover, Ms. Vella smartly grapples with a range of unanswered questions about motives, alibis and false confessions in order to put the history and histrionics in context. And while she’s at it, she delivers a book that has the feel of a novel, with consequences.

“Indecent Secrets” opens with Bonmartini’s dead body rotting in his apartment. It is August and the stench of the decomposing corpse has grown to be too much for the neighbors to bear. After they complain, police break into the residence at 39 Via Mazzini and find Bonmartini fully dressed with “thirteen cuts on his face, hands, arms, and chest, including one terrible hole between the second and third buttons of his vest where a ferocious stab had broken his sternum, pierced his heart, and produced the hemorrhage that covered the room with a carpet of dark crust.”

From the moment Bonmartini’s body was discovered, the Italian press became obsessed with the case, and in the book, Ms. Vella considers what the press recorded in order to unravel the mysteries surrounding the murder and to shed light on contemporary sentiments and preoccupations.

“All over Italy journalists and their readers advanced theories about how the count died, each day’s articles confirming that the rich and famous, too, have sordid and unhappy lives,” she writes.

And so the author presents the evidence as the police encountered it, first suggesting that letters found in the apartment pointed to the donne allegre (“lively” women) that Bonmartini might have consorted with. But after a newspaper ran protests from friends and relatives defending his memory, the push to go in a different direction began.

The press started to run articles focusing on the plight of Linda, the count’s wife who had a long history of “sickness and injury.” It also paid homage to her father who was a highly respected doctor in Bologna.

“Augusto Murri was not from an old family; he was a self-made man, an exemplar of the active, educated, agnostic professionals who had been gaining ground everywhere in Europe, making independent names for themselves. The Murris were respectable and genteel. How could an event of such raw brutality happen in a decent family?” the writer asks.

But the question is moot. As she clearly shows, “The long and sordid Murri-Bonmartini story had begun.”

Over the next three years, the story would change shape as new evidence and new theories were considered. Was Linda an “enchantress” whose native sadness drew men under her spell? Were there incestuous bonds that linked father to daughter, brother to sister?

Once the authorities turned their attention away from Bonmartini’s weaknesses (of which there appeared to be few), other suspects and their questionable antics slowly came into focus.

Linda seemed to be the person most likely to have killed her husband or, at least, arranged for others to do so, but even this seems hard to believe. Ms. Vella describes the early days of the couple’s marriage, which appeared to be happy and unremarkable.

Both Linda and Bonmartini were born into comfort. However, while Linda showed signs of early illness and stress, Bonmartini seemed to be a person of solid bearings. “Though he was heir to a conspicuous fortune, he was brought up to be modest, frugal, and credulous, guided by an older cousin, Battista Valvassori, who was a second father to him.”

Bonmartini met Linda Murri when he was 23 and “romance sparked between the Catholic landowner and the daughter of the bourgeois atheist.”They wed on Oct. 17, 1892 and in the next few years had two children together.

Bonmartini became a doting and “adored Papa, a cuddler and a teaser, both whimsical and loving,” and he believed his future was bright, including the possibility that he could go to medical school, become a doctor and join his father-in-law’s thriving practice.

But something happened in the middle of 1898 that changed things dramatically. Linda suddenly became cold and distant towards her husband, and any thoughts the young medical student had about a career beyond managing his vast estates were proving pointless. At every turn his father-in-law seemed determined to thwart his advancement.

Bonmartini remained at a loss why Linda suddenly turned on him, and readers for a time are no less mystified. Bonmartini’s perplexity, mirrored in the diaries he begins to keep (and which played a role during the murder trial) is resolved in short order. Linda, it seems, has taken a lover. And to make matters worse, her lover is Carlo Secchi, her father’s right hand man.

And so the bouncing ball of suspicion begins to take off — from Linda to Secchi, from Secchi to Tisa Borghi (Secchi’s assistant and reputed lover) to Linda’s brother Tullio and his lover Rosina.

In time, Tullio confesses to the murder of his beloved sister’s husband but the story doesn’t stop there. Can the confession be trusted? Is he protecting Linda? Too many overlapping stories, dying witnesses, additional secret diaries exist to make his involvement a simple matter for any judge or jury.

In the end, readers learn the fates of all the players and are gratified by the fact that apart from what the courts decide, the author minces no words about those she finds most repellent. It is Secchi, Linda’s lover, who takes what might be the brunt of her sternest approbations.

Time and again, being the historian that she is, Ms. Vella returns to present how the newspapers handled the evolving aspects of the story and to put that story into the larger context of what life was like in Bologna, Turin and Venice at the beginning of the 20th century.

Ms. Vella writes: “The journalists’ attention to crime was not entirely sordid. In the absence of stable political parties, the press remained the main arena for political and moral discussion in Italy … .

“Not only were socialists, Catholics, and secularists involved. The public thought the Masons and chemists had a role … . Doctors, lawyers, maids, professors, singers, accountants, aristocrats, hotel keepers, barroom owners, bankers, gamblers, contadini, landowners, and donne allegre all felt that the case somehow reflected on them. Whatever happened in the story was personally important.”

By the beginning of the trial all of the defendants had been in jail for two and a half years. It took the jury three and a half hours to render a judgment.

Clearly, this story was personally important to Ms. Vella and her meticulous research and fast-paced, stylish rendering make it a splendid read. In the end, one is left knowing that justice prevailed. And that is a not-so-guilty pleasure after all.

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