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6 Italian Detectives Who Leave Scandi Noir in the Shade

Italian crime fiction can be broadly divided into two categories. There are the books written by Italian writers, including ex-judges and ex-policemen like Michele Giuttari and Gianfranco Carofiglia. These authors have a compelling ring of authenticity to them. The theory is that Italian journalists can no longer risk writing the truth about life and politics in Italy, rife as it is with rampant corruption and unsavoury shenanigans. It is the writers of so-called fiction who take up the slack.

The Italian Italian detectives tend to be broody and disheartened, their creators dwelling more on morality than plot. They seem more interested in analysing motives, asking why the dirty deed was done, having long forsaken the fantasy of putting the bad guys behind bars.

These courageous writers also run the gauntlet of an inconsistent quality of translation. Overly strict translation into English sometimes removes the very Italian-ness that readers, readers like me, may be seeking. Nonetheless, when they get it all right, the real Italian detectives offer a view into the dark heart of Italy and the soul of man.

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Then, there are the books written in English by authors who appreciate that everything, food, romance, and even bloody murder, goes down easier when set in sun-drenched Italy and served with a Campari Soda. The combined forces of the mafia, the Vatican and the multi-faceted Italian personality provide ample material for the crime author in search of a setting.

British author Timothy Williams set the ball gently rolling with his Commissario Trotti series. Michael Dibdin created his Venice-born Commissario, Aurelio Zen, in the mid 1980s but he was rapidly overtaken by American Donna Leon’s middle brow Venetian juggernaut, Commissario Brunetti. More recently, Nadia Dalbuono has upped the game with her mafia-connected, flying squad hero, Leone Scamarcio.

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With a new wave of convincing Italian crime authors (Piergiorgio Pulixi, Luigi Romolo Carrino, Pasquale Ruju, Luca Poldelmengo) ripe for translation and tackling contemporary themes of immigration and austerity, we may expect Mediterranean Noir to leave Scandi crime in the shade.

The Waters of Eternal Youth

This American author lived in Venice for over thirty years and worked as a professor of English at the American military base in Vicenza for almost twenty. The story goes that Leon, a keen opera enthusiast, was chatting with the reigning diva of La Fenice opera house when the pair agreed that a certain conductor, unnamed, merited murdering. Leon, jokingly, continued to speculate on how the deed might be done. The result was her first novel, Death at La Fenice, starring the charming and indefatigable Commissario Guido Brunetti. Since then, Brunetti has had an annual outing, has enjoyed worldwide success and has been much translated. Curiously, Leon has resisted translation to Italian claiming to value her relative anonymity in Venice.

The Waters of Eternal Youth marks 25 years of the series although Guido and his family have aged no more than five. The cast of characters has fluctuated only a little but the depth of their relationships has deepened, subtly, over the years making this one of the most satisfying series, of any genre, you can read.

Leon combines the affectionate but critical eye of a foreigner with the authenticity of a near-native. She writes in crisp, almost old-fashioned, English, ever so slightly inflected by the charm of formal Italian.

‘The Contessa turned towards him, apparently confused by this rare conjunction of the words ‘guilty’ and ‘you’, and perhaps nervous that this person might know some way they might legitimately be conjoined.’

Her characters talk, too, like real Venetians do. They complain about the floods, the tourists, the rocketing rents and the impossibility of raising a family in the racket that is Venice. They talk about corruption and bureaucracy and they talk about food. Brunetti, like the majority of Italian detectives, eats often and he eats well.

‘Your cooking probably saved my life,’ says Brunetti to his blue-blooded wife, Paola, who is damn near perfect. She is wise, patient, intelligent and an unrepentant bookworm, not to mention the fact that her cooking is good enough to have spawned a culinary spin-off, Brunetti’s Cookbook.

Leon is exceptional in populating her novels with strong and interesting female characters including Brunetti’s smart teenage daughter, sharp-witted aristocratic mother-in-law, a colleague detective who is treated as an equal, and a computer whizz secretary who generally saves the day.

While this and all Leon’s books are tightly plotted and stand alone, these are books to read for stylish writing, smart literary allusion and characters you want to get to know better. It’s hard to beat Brunetti.

A Death In Calabria

Michele Giuttari is the third most successful European crime author in translation, after Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo.

Giuttari, as former head of the Florence Police Force (1995-2003), indisputably knows what he’s writing about. He was involved in a number of high profile cases including an anti-mafia campaign and that of the ‘Monster of Florence’, who murdered 14 people and was the inspiration for Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter.

The earlier books in the series are set in Florence but in this, the fourth, Inspector Michele Ferrara heads up an elite anti-mafia squad in Rome and Calabria. The plot opens when several citizens of an isolated Calabrian village are murdered, some in New York, and Ferrara must collaborate with the FBI to get to the root of the ‘Ndrangheta’s activities. I found the plot convoluted, the writing confusing and the characters one dimensional. Compared to Brunetti’s beloved Paola, Ferrara’s wife is a mere wisp of a character. While I may have been less than impressed, reviews would indicate that I hit the dud. There seems to be general agreement that earlier books in the series are superior and the most recent, Death Under a Tuscan Sun, has been much lauded for a sense of total authenticity. If you’re searching for the ring of truth, Commissario Ferrara just might be your man.

Converging Parallels (commissario Trotti #1)

First published in 1982, Converging Parallels is a case of genuine nostalgia. The Observer named Timothy Williams as one of the ten best European crime novelists saying that the five books of the Inspector Trotti series ‘are hard to find’ but ‘a delight.’ (You'll be relieved to read that they are all available here on bookwitty).

The debut of the series was set in 1978 against the backdrop of the kidnapping of Aldo Moro, one of the country’s most powerful politicians, and the brutal killing of his five bodyguards. Italy was in a crisis of identity – ‘The worst crisis in the thirty years of scandal and corruption of the Italian Republic.’ At a time when the country was gripped by the fear of kidnapping and confidence in the police force had bottomed out, a six-year-old girl, Trotti’s goddaughter, goes missing.

Commissario Piero Trotti, and his creator, come across as earnest, honest and hard-working. They both, in this reader’s opinion, try too hard. The plot twists and throws up a couple of red herrings, just as one would expect. The missing girl is retrieved at the midpoint leaving Trotti with a suspense-free half a book to wrap up the case without allowing the reader any peek inside the machinations of his mind. The good inspector’s marriage is on the rocks due, he believes, to a lapse in communication and the author flounders similarly in communicating with his audience.

Nonetheless, I found that I liked Commissario Trotti. I liked his honesty, his awkward relationship with his teenage daughter, his penchant for cycling a pre-war wooden-wheeled bicycle and his addiction to rhubarb sweets. Piero Trotti seems like a decent guy, a good cop and a credible character – just not, for me, a particularly entertaining one.

Death in August

The first Inspector Bordelli mystery was released in Italy in 2002 but the series has only recently been translated to English and released with very attractive, vintage style covers. Death in August is set in Florence in 1963, during the hottest August in living memory. The infernal heat and perfidious mosquitoes have driven the city’s populace to the beach but Bordelli remains to solve the case of a rich old lady who has been discovered dead in her bed.

Death in August is a straight forward police procedural. It is a relatively short book with no chapter breaks which makes it strangely unputdownable –you have to wonder why no one thought of doing that before. Relative to the length of the book, Vichi makes a huge investment in character development thus laying the foundations for later books in the series. While Bordelli is a sympathetic character, he is almost too good to be wholesome. A veritable Robin Hood, he despises the rich and donates cash to harmless petty thieves. The plot culminates when Bordelli hosts a dinner party for a psychoanalyst, a pathologist, a crazy scientist and a crook...unfortunately it’s not as amusing as it sounds. Death in August boasts an array of likeable supporting characters but, if anything, this book lacks a baddie, even the cliché of a contemptible superior to provide a touch of chiaroscuro.

The plot is paper thin but the aura of vintage nostalgia is very appealing. I feel certain, having noted the enthusiasm of Italian reviewers, that a weak translation has let Vichi down. Inspector Bordelli may be worth getting to know in the original Italian if at all possible.

The Few

Donna Leon may well have met her match. My family can tell how much I’m enjoying a book by what we call the wooden spoon test: if, at dinner time, a book is lying beside the cooker, with a spoon, or other handy implement, marking the page, they can be certain that I am well-glued by a plot, and the dinner is likely to be scorched. Nadia Dalbuono, who until recently has worked as a producer of documentaries with Britain’s Channel Four and National Geographic, must take responsibility for an over-cooked meal in this house but I will allow that it was worth it.

This, the first outing of Detective Leone Scamarcio, was published in 2014, with The American following on its heels and The Hit hot off the presses. The plot opens with the Foreign Secretary being photographed in a compromising position with a young man who appears to be just the wrong side of legal. He is blackmailed by unscrupulous members of the police force but when mere scandal turns to murder, Scamorcio is called in to deal with the problem. The plot may seem far-fetched until you remember that this is Italy.

From the outset, the few feels like a high stakes game; the writing is taut, the tension irresistible.

‘Now listen, Rossi, let’s just keep this simple. I’m a busy man – places to go, people to mutilate.’

Scamarcio, in his mid-thirties, is younger than other Italian detectives and described as being in good shape. His father was a leading figure in the ‘Ndrangheta, Calabria’s chillingly organized crime syndicate. Scamarcio has rejected the family business but his heritage is such a hindrance to his career that he sometimes wonders whether he would have been better off, and more effective, as an ordinary decent criminal. As the detective ranges from Rome to Elba in a rented Fiat Cinquecento, Dalbuono keeps the reader hooked with plenty of clues, blind alleys and short, snappy chapters.

the few is uncomfortable reading, unnerving and unputdownable to the last page.

The Shape of Water

Italian detectives, as a fictional species, lack sex appeal. Scamarcio, it seems, is work obsessed, Trotti has marital issues, Bordelli is past it and Donna Leon simply doesn’t go there. But Salvo Montalbano is a man who has to fight women off left, right and centre. He’s attractive and he knows it. He doesn’t carry a gun as it would ruin the lines of his suit. Not only good-looking, the good Commissario is an anomaly among the Sicilian police force in that he lives only on his legitimate salary and genuinely tries to fight crime. Montalbano is the type of man who returns home from a gruesome crime scene and self-medicates by preparing himself a dish of spaghetti with a sauce of sea urchin pulp. Can you tell that I am more than a little bit in love?

When a prominent politician is found dead, with his pants down, the general first reaction is relief:

‘It’s wonderful, that is, that someone in this fine province of ours should decide to die a natural death and thereby set a good example.’

Montalbano persists in investigating the case despite disruptive interference from his superiors, a judge and a bishop.

Camilleri worked as a director of stage and screen, in particular of the works of Beckett and Pirandello who is regularly referenced by Montalbano. He came late to authorship, publishing this, the first of the Montalbano series, in 1994, at the age of 69. Camilleri named his protagonist in tribute to Spanish crime writer Manuel Vásquez Montalbán. Montalbán’s Barcelona-based detective, Pepe Carvalho shares many of Salvo’s attributes, not least an obsession with good food.

Such has been Camilleri’s success that the Sicilian town of Porto Empedocle has laid mercenary claim to the identity of Montalbano’s fictional home of Vigàta and has officially changed its name to Porto Empedocle Vigàta...only in Sicily!

At 91, chain-smoking Camilleri continues to churn out books that are snort-out-loud funny. He makes an entertaining display from all man’s greed and lust but contrasts this with the just occasionally great dignity of the human spirit. It is an addictive formula. For humour, authenticity, and general yumminess, Commissario Montalbano is my pick of the pack.


Irish blogger and book reviewer. Official contributor to Bookwitty.com and author of Bookwitty's monthly 'Cooking the Books' feature. Erstwhile microbiologist with an MSc in Food Science, she ... Show More