March 6, 2012

A potted history of Italian crime fiction

Hersilia Press @ 11:08 am

When mentioning Italian crime fiction, everyone thinks about Andrea Camilleri and his Inspector Montalbano. In fact, Montalbano is only one in a series of Italian sleuths who have been delighting Italian readers since 1929. It is a very precise date, as this is the year the first Giallo Mondadori was published: initially only referring to the yellow colour of the cover, the term came to represent a whole genre of crime fiction which doesn’t distinguish between detective, noir, thriller, forensic or other sub-genres as in the English-speaking world.

Italian crime fiction cannot claim roots as deep as British fiction, but Augusto de Angelis (1888-1944) is one of its pioneers: between 1930 and 1943 he wrote about twenty books with protagonist Commissario Carlo De Vincenzi. In 1943 de Angelis he was arrested, accused of antifascism and died a few months later. His books have not yet been translated into English.

The following years did not see a huge number of crime writers in Italy, most likely because of the censorship of the fascist years between 1931 and 1946 which aimed at eliminating some unsavoury aspects of society (as murder could be) even from the imagination of innocent Italians.

A fervent antifascist was also Carlo Emilio Gadda, an engineer by profession, who wrote only one crime fiction book: Quer Pasticciaccio Brutto de via Merulana (That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana) published in 1957, but serialised between 1946 and 1947. The large number of characters and the absence of a main protagonist, and the lack of a solution to the story reflect, in Gadda’s view, true life which is always too chaotic and complicated to be explained by rationality alone.

Leonardo Sciascia in 1961 published Il Giorno Della Civetta (The Day of the Owl), a novella more than a novel, which truly encapsulates what the mafia is all about: most of his later novels deal with omertà (silence) and the difficulty of finding the culprit in a society where corruption and fear are rife.

In the late Sixties an author who had already written a few books in the Giallo Mondadori, Giorgio Scerbanenco, was propelled to fame by the Duca Lamberti series, starting with Venere Privata (A Private Venus). The protagonist is not an investigator but a doctor who has been struck off the register for having performed a euthanasia. In its historical context, I am sure this was an even more controversial figure than it would be today. Scerbanenco had written in various genres previously, including romance fiction, and his production is vast.

The Anni di Piombo (Years of Lead) were the years of political and violent extremism embodied in the anarchic circles and their alleged involvement in the Piazza Fontana bombing, the Brigate Rosse (a far-left terrorist organisation) and their kidnapping and subsequent murder of high profile politician Aldo Moro, was the worst period of Italy’s terrorism and again didn’t see much published in terms of crime fiction: perhaps real life was already too gruesome and rather scary for Italians.

The Anni di Piombo are the setting of Romanzo Criminale by Giancarlo de Cataldo (2002), which again explores the links between the Mafia, the State and organised crime after Aldo Moro’s kidnapping. An Italian film has been made from the book and more recently HBO has acquired the rights to produce a new TV series. Romanzo Criminale tells the story of the Banda della Magliana, a semi-independent criminal organisation working in Rome from 1976, and still operating nowadays according to some.

Massimo Carlotto is perhaps an icon of the heavy-handedness of the law after the Anni di Piombo: in 1976 he found a student friend, Margherita Magello, stabbed 59 times in his apartment. He contacted the police but was then arrested and accused of the murder, and despite the lack of forensic evidence against him, the process went through the three courts and he was convicted. His arrest has been linked to his membership of Lotta Continua, a political and semi-violent extreme left organisation. He absconded to Mexico and Central America, and only in 1993 President Scalfaro granted him a reprieve allowing him to start a new life.

Many of his books have autobiographical traits: from Il Fuggiasco (The Fugitive, 2005), to his main character L’Alligatore, to Giorgio Pellegrini, the protagonist of Arrivederci Amore Ciao (The goodbye kiss, 2007) and of his latest, Alla fine di un Giorno Noioso, where Giorgio is trying to rebuild his reputation.

Although most gialli writers demonstrate the typical impegno, the social and political commitment and analysis of the evils of Italian society, a large number of them chooses to set their fiction in historical rather than contemporary setting, which doesn’t mean the impegno is absent. Of those set in the distant past, Alfredo Colitto’s trilogy starting with Cuore di Ferro (Inquisition, 2011) takes place in the anatomy study of Bologna, in the early 14th century; Danila Comastri Montanari writes fiction set in ancient Rome, with a character similar to Lindsey Davis’ Falco.

Marcello Fois is a writer and screenwriter, and is known to English readers mostly for Sempre Caro (The Advocate, 2003) the first of a trilogy set in Sardinia at the beginning of the twentieth century, with protagonist lawyer Bustianu, which won the prestigious Premio Scerbanenco in 1998. His writing is very lyrical and poetic in its description of the society and the natural environment of his native Sardinia. The Advocate was shortlisted for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger in 2003.

Marco Vichi is also a fiction writer and screenwriter and is the creator of the Commissario Bordelli, set in Florence in the Sixties. His Il Commissario Bordelli (Death in August, 2011 and Death and the Olive Grove, 2012) are the first two in a successful series.

Carlo Lucarelli is one of the best known Italian crime writers, and is best known for the Commissario De Luca trilogy (translated into English as Carte Blanche, The Damned Season and Via delle Oche) but also well known for Almost Blue (2004) which was shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger. He also is the presenter of Blu Notte (now Lucarelli racconta), a TV programme reconstructing unsolved crimes and mysteries of the distant and recent past.

The background of authors is important for their writing, especially in the case of Valerio Varesi who was a journalist for various national newspapers before writing fiction: his River of Shadows (2011) is the first in the Commissario Soneri series, which continues with The Dark Valley (2012). The River of Shadows has been shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger.

This brief outline cannot conclude without mention of Andrea Camilleri who, as alluded to, is probably the best known of Italian giallisti: he straddles the detective story and the cosy crime, and his is the archetype of the Italian lonely copper who can drop almost everything (but not his case) for a plate of excellent food. The importance of language and dialect is perhaps as important in Camilleri as it was for Gadda half a century earlier.

What the modern day gialli generally have in common is a meticulous description of the political and social background which makes them more character-driven than plot-driven, and usually a very strong view on the situation, which transpires in the books and which I believe makes one of the interesting marks of gialli. They certainly are very special, and make a huge contribution to the diversity of the crime fiction panorama worldwide.

December 14, 2011

Book review: River of Shadows by Valerio Varesi

Hersilia Press @ 10:22 am

The book is set in the plains of the River Po in the area of Parma during a bitter (or a normal?) winter and it is the first investigation of Commissario Soneri.  The two Tonna brothers disappear in close succession: one actually goes missing, the other falls out of a window.

In a land where the wounds of the second world war are still fresh for many and the fights between fascists and partisans seem to have transcended the generations involved, it is reasonable to suppose that these grudges are open.

Commissario Soneri is not local but comes from not very far away, and he can grasp the subtle political nuances soon. I found his girlfriend’s character a bit two-dimensional as well as irritating: she seemed to just complain about his lack of attention but she is the one who doesn’t want commitment, and I found her closer to the representation of a certain male fantasy than a real woman.  She doesn’t however have a great role in the book, which is incredibly atmospheric – possibly because I was reading about fog while the weather wasn’t so good here, but I really felt taken into those places.

The novel is set in modern times but the associations with the 1940s are frequent and strong. The book is as much about the modern investigation as it is about the different lives of these people in a disrupted context as was a war and its aftermath.

Like many Italian novels, this is not an all-action type of book: there is a lot said about people and history rather than gunfights (well, there are no gunfights at all actually). I read this book in English, and the technical navigational terms have hindered my reading a bit, being a non-native speaker, but my impression is that this aspect wouldn’t have been different had I read the Italian version.

I did like the book, but perhaps something atypical or unexpected, either in the plot or in the characters, would have really enriched my reading. I do, however, very much like the setting, both geographical and historical: I liked the links with historical events of that particular time, and I think Varesi’s characterisation of the two factions (fascists and communists/partisans) was spot on and extremely interesting. This is to me a fascinating time of Italian history and a brilliant time to explore in a crime novel.