Biographer Secrest reveals a little-known slice of computer history in her account of the Italian typewriter company Olivetti, which created the first desktop computer, and the conspiracies that surround its leaders' deaths.
Secrest brings the extraordinary Olivetti clan vividly to life, reports on highly suspicious deaths, and dramatically illuminates their legendary company’s shocking downfall via long-hidden, deeply sordid conspiracies among fascists, Mafiosi, the CIA, IBM, GE, and Fiat to obliterate Olivetti’s crowning achievement and marvel of ingenuity, Programma 101, the first desktop computer. Deftly seeded with clues and lavish in intriguing detail, Secrest’s many-faceted exposé intensifies with dark surprise as it reveals Cold War acts of sinister politics, ruthless espionage, and covert crimes, and traces the long, grasping tentacles of the American military-industrial complex.
These are sensational charges, and Ms. Secrest doesn’t make them calmly. Whereas her earlier chapters are engaging and tolerably well written, the last and longest—the book’s raison d’être—is a muddle, its flimsy theories spewed out in feverish prose ... Subscribing to a cartoonishly exaggerated view of American power in Italy, Ms. Secrest blames it for all Olivetti’s misfortunes ... [Secrest's] attempt to establish the Olivettis as victims of American villainy is doomed by her weakness for dietrologia, with its paranoia and Cold War clichés. It’s as if some dark puppet master menaced her with a poison gun.
The Mysterious Affair at Olivetti...tells a circuitous, bizarre story ... It's a useful reminder to be skeptical of the stories companies tell about themselves. Still, the book is a little in the weeds. The first two-thirds or so of The Mysterious Affair at Olivetti, despite their spanning two world wars and an unending series of complicated and fascinating interpersonal dynamics, can at times feel tedious and confusing. Secrest moves between time periods in a way that can be difficult to track—and the relationship each of the long list of characters who appear has to the Olivetti family is often hard to ascertain. Working through the wave of information, however, is worth it for the absolutely thrilling—if not entirely believable—theorizing and deducing that takes place over the last third of the book. The mostly straitlaced history turns conspiratorial ... The Mysterious Affair at Olivetti is a rigorous history of a powerful Italian family and their company with an absolutely gripping but specious and perhaps reckless section of conspiracizing at the end. One must read it skeptically, but it's exciting to watch someone try to put the pieces together, even if a large percentage are missing.