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The Deruga Case

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Ricarda Huch, The Deruga Case [Berlin; 1917]

A courtroom drama with the exterior trappings of a murder mystery but, as I've come to expect from Huch, it's more interested in the fine shadings of personality than in timetables and howdunits. The amused, worldly lawyers, the bored, rapacious aristocrats, the feeble, short-sighted witnesses, are all stock characters, though most of them get deepened, interrogated by Huch's piercing gaze as much as by the legal process -- but the central figure, Dr. Sigismondo Deruga, of Italian origin practicing in the German-speaking world (drifting between Munich and Vienna), is a character study so pronounced and extensive that it's hard to imagine it not being based on personal acquaintance.

The book's epigraph, "To those charming people who are commonly described as being their own worst enemies," gets at the primary psychological theme of the novel, although the "racial" prejudices of the era get plenty of airing, as characters opine on the differences between German and Italian (and Slovak, etc.) temperaments. In a way, although the structure of the novel is brand-spanking up-to-date for 1917 (its courtroom scenes remind me of Dorothy L. Sayers', if not so broad), its questions about temperaments and assumptions about the truth of the judicial process are all very nineteenth-century. Huch doesn't successfully navigate the requirements of a credible mystery plot (there's a big ringing coincidence necessary to tie up the threads), but as a novel of ideas, it's on par with her other novel I've read, The Last Summer .

It's a little hard to read the two works as the same author, since this translation was from 1929 (and marketed as a mystery novel), whileThe Last Summer was only translated in 2016, but the way she slips into philosophical questions about the nature of man and the best way to live a moral life is the same. I enjoyed it more deeply than any book I've read recently.

December 28, 2017