The Italian Riveter: Dark Skies over the Mediterranean – Italian Crime Fiction by Barry Forshaw

The sun beats down, and cold-hearted murder is done. The very individual, and more laid-back, approach to crime fiction in Italy, that most Latin of countries – with its image (true or false) of endemic political and religious corruption – is fertile territory for crime fiction, not least for the way its deceptive languor is shot through with the ever-present influence of the Mafia. When I took part in a BBC programme on Italian crime fiction in 2011 (still viewable on YouTube as Time Shift: Italian Noir), it was an opportunity to revisit the work of many of the key writers from that country, which I’d covered for such newspapers as the Financial Times and the Guardian. But why doesn’t crime fiction from Italy – while
certainly celebrated – enjoy quite the international appeal of several other European countries?

It is notable, and perhaps regrettable, that, as yet, many of the remarkable and idiosyncratic talents of this Mediterranean branch of the crime fiction genre have not made their mark in the same way the Scandinavians have, at least as long as a decade or so ago, which is when the following essay (with some exceptions) extends to. But enthusiasm among non-Italian speaking readers is growing. The attentive reader will take on board the sometimes subtle, sometimes direct political insights and historical contexts freighted into the work of traditional crime writers such as Leonardo Sciascia, Carlo Lucarelli and, of course, Andrea Camilleri. But along with these better-known names, much light may be thrown on the achievements of other writers yet to break through. New readers, however, should be aware that sheer narrative pleasure is the key element of most Italian crime fiction, rather than, generally speaking, the more astringent sociopolitical fare from other countries. Italy, of course, has produced one of the most ambitious historical crime novels ever written: Umberto Eco’s sprawling, phantasmagorical, philosophical The Name of the Rose (1980), a book graced with one of the most celebrated translations ever accorded a non-English language novel, courtesy of William Weaver.

Latin Temperaments: ANDREA CAMILLERI

Italy’s crime fiction is gradually coming to terms with a fractured political situation and a long series of political scandals. The doyen of Italian crime writers, Andrea Camilleri (who died in 2019), rarely engaged directly with politics or social issues. Although, during the massively controversial Silvio Berlusconi era, he did quote Dante: ‘The country has the wrong helmsman.’ While his books accept endemic corruption as part of the fabric of Italian society, they are elegantly written, escapist fare. The seal of the best foreign crime writing is as much the stylish prose as it is the unfamiliar settings readers are transported to. When both ingredients are presented with the expertise that is Camilleri’s hallmark, Mr Micawber’s words are à propos: ‘result, happiness’. Camilleri has familiarised us with his Sicilian copper Salvo Montalbano – a laser-sharp mind, and a gourmet whose mind frequently strays to food. Most of all, we know his stomping ground: the beautiful, sleepy territory of Vigata. And the heat. In August Heat (published in English in 2009) – a key book – it is omnipresent and crushing.

The Godfather: LEONARDO SCIASCIA

The immensely influential Leonardo Sciascia (who was born in Racalmuto, Sicily, in 1921 and died in 1989 in Palermo) is one of the most comprehensively significant of Italian writers, celebrated for his swingeing examination of political corruption and the corrosive concomitants of power. His work is shot through with intellectual rigour. Sciascia made his living teaching even when writing (much like the Swedish novelist Håkan Nesser), and only decided to write full time in 1968. His political commitment was well known: he was a Communist Party representative on Palermo’s city council, and followed this with a stint working for the Radical Party in the Italian Parliament. From Sciascia’s early work in 1950 onwards (Fables of the Dictatorship, with its critique of fascism), political engagement was always on the writer’s agenda. His first crime-related novel appeared in 1961, the brilliantly written The Day of the Owl, with its sharply drawn picture of the Mafia, consolidated in later books. His influence on the many writers who succeeded him is incalculable.

The Italian Lee Child: GIANRICO CAROFIGLIO

The elegant Gianrico Carofiglio is very much his own man. When he talks about the fact that he is regarded by feminine admirers as something of a surrogate for his fictional protagonist, lawyer Guido Guerrieri, it’s hard not to think: ‘Gianrico Carofiglio is the Italian Lee Child!’ And if his hero, Guido, is a more thoughtful, less two-fisted character than the brawling Jack Reacher, he is as much a favourite with female readers as Lee Child’s maverick troubleshooter. The author Carofiglio is a brave man: he was an anti-Mafia judge in Puglia, taking on the powerful and (lethal) corruption that is endemic in Italy. His novel Involuntary Witness (2010), followed since by other, well-received books, begins with the discovery of a child’s body in a well at a southern Italian beach resort. A Senegalese peddler is arraigned for sexual assault and murder, but Defence Counsel Guido Guerrieri realises that the truth is more complex. A tangled skein of racism and judicial corruption confronts Guerrieri.

The Multi-Tasking GIORGIO FALETTI

Giorgio Faletti is a man clearly not content with just one career. Over the years, he has been a lawyer, TV comedian, film actor (e.g. Cinema Paradiso) and singer/songwriter – and, what’s more, he has enjoyed considerable success in each of these careers. His blockbuster thriller, I Kill (Italian: 2002), had already sold over five million copies worldwide before its UK appearance in 2010. While most Italian crime fiction is deliberately parochial, Faletti paints his exuberant narrative on the largest of canvases. The template here is very much the grand scale – the international thriller as practised by American and British writers – and he knows exactly what he’s doing. The setting is Monte Carlo, playground of the rich and bolthole for the criminal. In I Kill, the more upscale residents are being targeted by an implacable serial killer who calls himself ‘No One’ (shades of Homer’s Odyssey). A radio talk show host allows him to announce each killing against a soundtrack that indicates who the next victim will be. And at the scene of each crime are the words ‘I Kill’ scrawled in the victim’s blood. The killer’s nemeses are FBI agent Frank Ottobre, struggling to come to terms with the death of his wife, and Police Commissioner Nicholas Hulot. The book is long – over five hundred pages – but the tension is maintained throughout with genuine skill.

Hunting Monsters: MICHELE GIUTTARI

Is the author Michele Giuttari actually more interesting than his books? Many crime authors are troglodyte creatures who wisely shun the light of day, as their unprepossessing appearances might remind readers how far they are from their charismatic protagonists, but Michele Giuttari (as I found when I met him for an event at the Harrogate crime writers festival) is almost a stereotypical Latin charmer, handsome in standard middle-aged Italian fashion. More than that, he is the Real Deal in the crimefighting stakes. A Sicilian-born inspector of police, he took on the Cosa Nostra. His elite anti-Mafia squad in Florence investigated the serial killer known as ‘the Monster of Florence’, who claimed fourteen lives and was an inspiration for Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter books. The fact that the killer did not appear to work alone, as Giuttari discovered, uncovered the murky layers of conspiracy that are meat and drink to a crime writer, and Giuttari made the decision to move from police work, where his life had been placed at risk on several occasions, to the more sedate profession of writer. His debut novel, A Florentine Death (2008, a massive seller in Italy), is a transmutation of the author’s previous life: Chief Superintendent Michele Ferrara shares his creator’s first name, stylish grey-flecked locks and Sicilian turn of phrase (not to mention a German wife). And Giuttari can actually deliver the literary goods.

The Years of Lead and Romanzo criminale

The immense success of Giancarlo De Cataldo’s novel Romanzo criminale, about three close friends who hijack the organised-crime scene in Rome, moved into the territory of non-literary phenomenon. The book, complex and heavily peopled, was famously inspired by real-life events. As well as being a compelling crime narrative, it is a chronicle of the ‘Years of Lead’, the time of sociopolitical upheaval that extended from the 1960s to the 1980s in Rome, with organised crime and political corruption going hand-in-hand. From a vividly realised 1960, with the joyriding principals already on their way to becoming ruthless criminals, through the bloody battles of the 1970s (including encounters with terrorists, the Mafia and the security services), the period detail is impeccable, with the stark and unvarnished presentation of the characters paying dividends in terms of verisimilitude.

Hiding from the Mob: The Legacy of Gomorrah

The incendiary, lid-blowing book Gomorrah (2006 in Italian) drove its author, Roberto Saviano, into hiding, angering his targets by his truthful portrait of the Neapolitan Mafia. The Camorra work with a cocktail of drugs and violence – both utilising and trading in the former. But their activities also extend to the toxic disposal of waste (which, of course, is not actually disposed of at all, but simply dumped) and the procurement of designer goods. This is not to take into account such vicious sidelines as people trafficking. Saviano offers a picture of the day-to-day life and activity of the mob, often crushingly banal, its protagonists stupid and brutal, with the book making no concessions to the romanticising of the subject so often channelled by other writers. Roberto Saviano may have paid a price for his bravery, but his literary legacy is assured with this remarkable document.

Sex, Blood and BARBARA BARALDI

Barbara Baraldi’s The Girl with Crystal Eyes (2010), sets its dark, giallo-influenced narrative in Bologna, painting the city’s timeworn network of dark streets, through which a serial killer moves, blood red. A child’s discarded teddy bear opens the curtain on a grim investigation conducted by the unrelenting Inspector Marconi, who probes every stratum of the city – high and low. Barbara Baraldi is something different from her compatriots; she has said that her templates are filmic rather than literary (Dario Argento rather than Andrea Camilleri), with a strong and heady infusion of punk sensibility – and, crucially, a heavy dose of eroticism. Sexuality totally infuses the book, and desire – both male and female – is foregrounded. It’s edgy, disturbing stuff.

Fascist Memories: CARLO LUCARELLI’S Commissario de Luca Trilogy

While working on his thesis on the history of law enforcement during the fascist period in Italy, Carlo Lucarelli interviewed a man who had been an officer in the Italian police force for forty years. He had started as a member of the fascist political police but, towards the end of the Second World War, when the fascists were on the run, he answered to partisan formations then in control of the country. His job? To investigate the fascist hierarchy, his former employers. After the war, when regular elections were held and a government formed, he was employed by the Italian Republic. Part of his job was again to investigate and arrest his former employers, this time the partisans. Carlo Lucarelli, however, never finished his doctoral thesis. Instead, Commissario De Luca was born, and overnight his creator became one of Italy’s most acclaimed crime authors.

The De Luca trilogy begins with Carte Blanche, set in April 1945, the final frenetic days of the Salò Republic. A brutal murder on the good side of town lands Commissario De Luca in the middle of a hornet’s nest where the rich and powerful mix drugs, sex, money, and murder. This was followed by The Damned Season in which De Luca is on the run under an assumed identity to avoid reprisals for the role he played during the fascist dictatorship. Blackmailed by a member of the partisan police, De Luca is obliged to investigate a series of murders, becoming a reluctant player in Italy’s post-war power struggle. The final novel, Via delle Oche, was set in 1948, with the country’s fate soon to be decided in bitterly contested national elections. A corpse surfaces in a brothel at the heart of Bologna’s red light district, and De Luca finds himself unwilling to look the other way when evidence in the murder points to prominent local power brokers. The novels (whose tone often veers alarmingly between the sardonic and the massively cynical) are built around one key thesis: the deforming effect of Italy’s compromised, slippery politics on every individual, not least the pragmatic but beleaguered De Luca.

Recent writers

The current state of the genre? Healthy, if not over-populated with newer names. There are impressive recent novels by Nicolò Ammaniti, Cristina Cassar Scalia, Antonio Manzini and Donato Carrisi. But whether there are more infusions of new blood or not, Italian crime fiction is here to stay.

By Barry Forshaw


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