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.

November 24, 2011

Book review: That awful mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda

Hersilia Press @ 3:36 pm


That awful mess on the Via Merulana is a classic of Italian crime fiction and only recently I managed to close this terrible gap in my knowledge :-) so at risk of being considered a philistine by many experts, here are my thoughts on it.

It was published from 1946 (in serialised form) so I was prepared to contextualise the writing and the plot to its historical setting. The first 50 pages really had me in stitches: the use of the Roman dialect and the description of people is really amazing. However, despite two murders happening in the book, it is a bit of a stretch to call it a crime fiction book. It is more a snapshot (and a long one at that) of life in the Roman suburbs in the fascist period. It might spoil the plot to say that the culprit is not found, despite the best efforts of the investigators.
And the book does feel like it’s unfinished, especially in the last page.

I do appreciate the masterful use of language and its historical importance (Gadda echoes other masters of Italian literature like Belli especially in the use of dialect). However, frequently the author launches into “soliloquies” where even a native speaker is baffled at the use of words, and which do not seem to me to have much purpose except for showing off such mastery of language.

The plot really is very thin but this is perhaps a characteristic of Italian crime fiction, much more based on the insight into characters than rollercoaster action – and undoubtedly Gadda was one of the founders of this particular style.

All in all, I find it very hard to express a non-contradictory opinion: it is indeed a translator’s nightmare, and the use of language is second to none (perhaps only Umberto Eco comes close). But, perhaps because of the different historical setting, there are a lot more aspects which I value in a book: plot, consistency and flow, which seem to be somewhat lacking in this one.