Article published on April 17, 2018.
As a tourist, Italy is a country that makes you feel at home, at least that is my experience. I only wish they weren’t so generous with the Limoncello in Sorrento, but that another story. That is so far away from the image of corruption and the mafia that colours the general view of Italy and yet it is a well-earned reputation. Italy is the most corrupt of the Western democracies, and none of us have much to boast about, and it has nearly fallen back into fascism on more than one occasion since World War II; there are still worrying signs of that today. The ‘Ndangheta account for a staggering portion of the economy (7% of GDP) and, of course, the Camorra, the Basilischi, the Sacra Corona Unita and a host of other regional mafias all have their own slice of the economic pie. So naturally the mafia dominates Italian life; political corruption, public contracts and developments, drugs and prostitution, numbers rackets – you get the picture. There are two more things that are important to note. First, after the war, the Italian government changed nearly every year, creating an unstable environment. Second, the former fascist state under Mussolini is fertile ground for crime stories.
The selection this month features:
The Art of Killing Well by Marco Malvaldi. After having finally finished compiling his great culinary masterpiece, Pellegrino Artusi is looking forward to a quiet stay at Barone de Roccapendente’s castle in the Tuscan hills. He envisions himself hunting boar by day and exploring the secrets of the castle’s kitchen by night, but ends up having to use his noted chef’s nose to sniff out a murderer. The Art of Killing Well is a humorous and nicely twisting tale of murder, intrigue, class distinction and culinary pleasures. Pellegrino Artusi is a self-effacing yet canny investigator, and he proves more than simply a match for both the killer and the Barone’s other guests. *****
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Although perhaps better suited to the Left Field feature than straightforward crime fiction, Umberto Eco’s masterpiece is a tale of murder, manuscripts, heresy and religious upheaval. Brother William of Baskerville is sent to investigate the goings on at a wealthy Italian abbey after the Franciscan brothers who live there are accused of heresy. Upon arrival at the abbey, he finds himself embroiled in a series of grisly and bizarre murders, and he turns detective in order to save both lives and the reputation of the Franciscan Order. During the course of his investigation, Brother William must contend with secret symbols, coded manuscripts, long-buried secrets and the general suspicion of all those around him. The Name of the Rose is a philosophical, literary, well-researched and, above all, excellently written historical mystery. *****
The Disappearance of Signora Giulia by Piero Chiara. Signora Giulia has taken the train to Milan every Thursday for three years, supposedly to visit her daughter. Then, one day, on an otherwise unremarkable Thursday, she simply disappears, and Detective Sciancalepre is tasked with discovering what has befallen her. Although it’s possible to follow Chiara’s carefully concealed clues in an effort to determine the fate of Signora Giulia, guessing the ultimate conclusion of the story is no easy task (it also takes Detective Sciancalepre a fair while to get to the bottom of the case). ****
The Swan by Sebastiano Vassalli. The only inscrutable board member of the Bank of Sicily is stabbed to death and thrown from a train en route to Palermo in 1893. Even though there are witnesses, the suspects continue to allude justice. Raffaele Palizzolo, member of parliament for Palermo, aka ‘the swan’, is suspected of masterminding the mafia clean up. This novel is based on the true story of a “man of honour” and the lengths he went to in order to satisfy his ambition. An enjoyable read that really will open your eyes to the origins of the mafia in Sicily, a startling portrait of man in his time and place. *****
The Hit by Nadia Dalbuono. First of the detective Leone Scamarcio investigations. Why are his bosses sending Scamarcio to investigate an apparently ordinary hit and run? Surely it should be a matter for the traffic division? The victims of the crash, the family of one of Italy’s top TV executives, are kidnapped en route to the hospital. The case, involving the sport, celebrity and political elite turns out to have grave implications for Scamarcio. He must return home to Calabria to confront his family’s mafia past. Best of a brilliantly entertaining and clever set of mysteries featuring a distinctive detective hero. Why is Dalbuono not lauded? ****
Imprimatur by Monaldi and Sorti. September, 1863, Catholic Rome is desperate for news of the Islamic invasion of Europe by the Ottoman Empire. Atto Melani, spy for Louis XIV, is stuck in the city as plague brings a quarantine. In the labyrinth of tunnels under the city he discovers a plot of terrifying audacity. A fine historical thriller that raised controversy when first published in Italy. Literary and engrossing. First in a series. ****
Death In Florence by Marco Vichi. An Inspector Bordelli mystery. When I read the first in this series I underestimated the depth of what was to follow, I have since been enthralled. Bordelli mounts a desperate investigation when a boy goes missing in Florence, 1966, amid the worst deluge for many years. The River Arno is threatening the survival of the city. When no progress is made in the case, the only one unwilling to give up is Bordelli. Great on historical detail and deftly plotted. Brilliantly translated by Stephen Sartarelli. ****
A Woman Much Missed by Valerio Varesi. As Christmas approaches, the force is winding down until Commissario Soneri discovers the body of Ghitta Tagliavini at her guest house, the building many years before where Soneri fell in love with his wife. The nice old lady turns out to be a back street abortionist and a faith healer. But there is much more to be revealed, not least details about his sainted dead wife’s past. A great character study – Soneri is a dogged and lonely detective. Dark and revealing of the underbelly of Italian society. Fourth in the series. ****
Holy Smoke by Tonino Benacquista. Dario, a low-rent Paris gigolo, comes to Tonio Polsinelli to write him a love letter. When Dario is shot dead he leaves Tonio a small vineyard near Naples. It’s a run-down operation producing terrible wine but it’s also part of a scam. Tonio has been dumped in the middle of a battle between the church, the mafia, fascists and the hostile locals. Wickedly funny at times, it’s stylish and energetic. ***
That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda. First published in 1957, this is the granddaddy of Italian crime fiction. In a Roman block of flats, a jewellery burglary takes place and then a young woman is murdered shortly afterwards. Detective Ciccio, an admirer of the dead woman, investigates and find that the residents of the apartments are all implicated. An attack on fascism and musings on the nature of crime: proof, certainty. A meditation on love and justice. Fun with a very serious point. *****
Big Italy by Timothy Williams. Commissario Trotting is making plans for retirement. He wants to move to a country villa and relax. Some want to talk him out of it. Fabrizio Bassi, a cop kicked off the force many years ago, is now a PI and he asks his old boss Trotti for help. When he turns up dead Trotti decides to take on one last case. ***
The Mannequin Man by Luca Di Fulvio. Often compared to Thomas Harris, but darker and more socially aware. Inspector Amaldi has to deal with the usual run of cases, a city paralysed by a bin collection strike and his friend’s recent terminal diagnosis. When a killer starts leaving mutilated bodies across the city, things turn nasty. Fishhooks in the corner of the mouth forcing a corpse to smile. Genuinely dystopian and spooky. ****
Crimini ed. by Giancarlo de Cataldo. The great and the good of Italian crime writing gathered in one collection: Carlo Lucarelli, Andrea Camilleri, Massimo Carlotto, Diego de Silva, Marcello Fois, Sandrone Dazieri, Giorgio Faletti and a collaboration between Niccolò Ammaniti and Antonio Manzoni. As with all anthologies, some very good others not so. ***
Death of a Showgirl by Tobias Jones. I could have chosen any one of Jones’s PI Castagnetti novels; they are so good, so insightful. A young girl has gone missing and her desperate parents employ Castagnetti to find her. It all leads to the TV empire of politician and media mogul, Mario Di Angelo (remind you of anyone?). Castagnetti finds another girl went missing 20 years ago. A measured dissection of the vile abuse of power and corruption at the heart of Italian politics and celebrity. Particularly in the light of #MeToo. Please write another one instead of nature books Mr. Jones! *****
The Crossroads by Niccolò Ammaniti. This is a truly involving novel, part coming of age tale. It’s the story of Christiano, 16 and very bright, he comes from a poor background and he’s held back by his violent and alcoholic father. When his father and friends plan a robbery they need Christiano to help pull it off. Christiano sees his chance to escape. Riveting and heart rending. *****
The Colombian Mule by Massimo Carlotto. Carlotto has a fascinating personal story about life on the run and the Italian justice system. This tight thriller introduces the Alligator and his crew, a bunch of old school criminals who don’t take too kindly to those who break the “rules”. The Alligator is now a PI and blues club owner. Colombian Arias Cuevasis is arrested at Venice airport with a load of cocaine that belongs to his auntie. When the police arrest an art smuggler Corradi, as an accomplice, the Alligator takes up his cause and a fight with the drug cartel. Pulp as good as it gets, I love all the Alligator novels. *****
Involuntary Witness by Gianrico Carofiglio. Defence counsel Guido Guerrieri defends a Senegalese street peddler from the accusation that he killed a young boy found at the bottom of the well. Very exciting legal thriller that deals with racism and corruption. The procedures in the Italian courts will drive you mad, but a really well told story. ****
The Marshall and the Mad Woman by Magdalen Nabb. Someone has murdered the local ‘mad woman’, a harmless eccentric. It falls to Marshal Salvatore Guarnaccia of the Florence police force to find out who. The answers lie in the past and Guarnaccia must piece together her past life. Long running series of police procedural with a likeable detective. ***
In a Heartbeat by Sandrone Dazieri. Santo is the director of an international advertising agency, a ruthless businessman. He comes around in the toilet of the Teatro alla Scala in Milan having electrocuted himself on a faulty light switch. He has no memory of the last fifteen years. Then he was a journalist, so he investigates his life, he realises his success since has been connected to the death of his boss who drowned on his yacht. Was it an accident? ***
The Snack Thief by Andrea Camilleri. A fishing boat off the coast of Sicily comes under fire from a Tunisian patrol boat, an old man is murdered in the lift of his apartment block and young mother goes missing, leaving her young son, the snack thief to fend for himself. Third in the long running Commissario Montalbano series. All of Camilleri’s stories are lightly told, relying on an ironic sense of humour, but they always get to the heart of matter: Sicily, corruption, the mafia, poverty, more corruption and more mafia. *****
Inspector Cataldo’s Criminal Summer by Luigi Guicciardi. A hot summer and a number of gruesome deaths in an Italian holiday town in the Apennines stir up the local community. A strange foreigner brings back old secrets for the locals and Inspector Cataldo investigates a suicide that has echoes in the past. Entertaining. ***
Judges by Camilleri, Lucarelli, and de Cataldo. Three short stories/novellas by great Italian crime writers about judges; a feud between two men, a financial investigation that gets nasty, and a nineteenth century conspiracy. Fine stories well told. ****
The De Luca Trilogy by Carlo Lucarelli. Commissario De Luca takes on three investigations, 1945-48, from the final days of the Fascist Republic to the fledgling democracy. A beautifully crafted set of stories that tell you so much about Italy at the end of the war. Also great mysteries, a class act, there is a unity of purpose to these novels that make a great work when taken together (a bit like Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr). *****
The Day of the Dead by Maurizio de Giovanni. Commissario Riccardi investigates the death of Matteo, a street urchin in 1930s Naples. The authorities don’t want to hear about the murder as they prepare for the visit of Mussolini. I love these novels, not just for the mysteries but for the beautiful dilemma that Commissario Riccardi is faced with when the Countess of Roccaspina, Bianca, and the homely neighbour, Enrica, vie for his affections. *****
Romanza Criminals by Giancarlo De Cataldo. Not an easy read, the style is very matter of fact but well worth the effort. An exposé of the Italian state and the rise of the mafia in Rome. Focusing on political corruption, gangsters, the church, and the secret services. From small beginnings in Eur, the gang become kidnappers, pimps, money launders and drug dealers connected to the secret services, terrorists and the fascists. A powerful and important read. ****
Poisonville by Massimo Carlotto and Marco Videtta. Shows that Carlotto is not just about the pulp. This novel is an excoriating analysis of modern northern Italy, the politics, industry, corruption, Russian gangsters and the mafia. A lawyer gets caught in the middle of it all. Sharp noir. *****
The Night of the Panthers by Piergiorgio Puluxi. A group of corrupt cops, headed by Chief Inspector Biagio Mazzeo of the drugs squad, known as ‘The Panthers’ battle with the local gangs and the southern mafia in a northern city known as the jungle. After an ordinary start this takes off and packs a real punch. ****
First Execution by Domenico Starnone. Domenico Stasi is a retired teacher. When he hears about Nina, a former pupil, being arrested for terrorism he thinks it must be a mistake. But she is proud of her role and asks Stasi to do her a favour; it gets messy. ****
The Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia. When a man is killed in the piazza no one comes forward. It’s left to one honest investigator to break the wall of silence. As terrible crimes are exposed, the corrupt politicians and the mafia line up against him. A model for a lot of modern crime writing. *****
Salamander by Morris West. The Australian novelist was often first on the scene and his insight into 60s/70s Italy is incisive. An ordinary murder has far deeper ramifications for the Italian state, once again watch out for plots and fascists. A consummate thriller. ****
Michael Dibdin. I confess that I have only ever read one Dibdin and I didn’t like it much so I’ve never been back. That said, I loved the Aurelio Zen series with Rufus Sewell on the BBC so I know there is more to his work than I got. He deserves inclusion.
Donna Leon. I have simply never read any Leon but I know how beloved her character are by fans, again she deserves inclusion.
Reviews of these novels can be found on BookNoir: Ferocity by Nicola Lagiola, Glass Souls by Maurizio de Giovanni, A Nest of Vipers/The Track of Sand/The Voice in the Night/The Pyramid of Mud/Paper Moon by Andrea Camilleri, Suburra by Giancarlo de Cataldo and Carlo Bonini, The Extremist by Nadia Dalbuono, and Death in August by Marco Vichi.
Paul Burke & Erin Britton