By Judy Garrison
I have recently become acquainted with a few writers of crime fiction set in Italy that I’d like to share with readers. Why Italy? As a co-facilitator of the Andes Library’s Italian Circle, I am a self-confessed junky of Italian culture, both high and low. Through our Circolo’s gatherings and email exchanges I have learned about authors who write crime novels with action-packed plots taking place in the context of the riotous backdrop of Italian social and political life. In the works of all three of the authors I want to tell you about, the writing is literate, the story lines compelling, the characters masterfully drawn and the social commentary packed with mordant satire.
I heard Donna Leon interviewed on NPR (National Public Radio) just after having been told I must read her, and then I knew for certain I would. In addition to her books, she has written the libretto for a comic opera and has set up her own opera company. Leon, a former academic, knows Venice, the setting of all her novels, well, as she has lived there for over 25 years. But she was born and raised in Montclair, New Jersey and writes in English, and although the books are translated into many languages she hasn’t authorized any Italian translations! Her series – written from 1992 to 2012 – with many of the books available through Four County System– now numbers 21 books. All feature her fictional hero, Commissario Guido Brunetti. I listened to an audiotape and enjoyed the sardonic dialogue and the fun the author has while revealing the seamy underbelly of Italian society.
Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano series set in Sicily became so popular that it was adapted for Italian television, and the author himself is parodied on a comedy show. Camilleri was born near Agrigento (Sicily), and his fictional town of Vigatá is based on his home town. He now lives in Rome. He’d written novels for years, but when the first book in the series came out to great success in 1994, the demand for more was huge and since then he has concentrated on the Montalbano books. Camilleri’s particular style mixes Italian and local dialect without ever making it unreadable for those from other regions.
In a crime review in The New York Times, Marilyn Stasio says, “There is a deliciously playful quality to the mysteries Andrea Camilleri writes about a lusty police detective named Salvo Montalbano.” She continues, “Taking aim at the idle rich, Camilleri skewers their rude manners, their affected airs, and their ostentatious amusements…”
Thirteen of the 16 books in the series have been translated into English so far. Seven are available from the Four County Library System.
The most recent author recommended to me is Michael Dibdin (1947-2007). He attended schools in Scotland and Ireland, universities in England and Canada and lived most recently in Seattle. His Aurelio Zen series is set all over Italy. I know I need to read the very first, Ratking (1989), set in Perugia where I studied in my twenties. The copy I borrowed from the 4CLS, Dead Lagoon, is set in Venice. As the book cover recounts, Zen is “intelligent, weary, urbane, pensive…,” is “a member of the elite Italian Criminalpol squad stationed in Rome, a middle-aged man disgusted with—but begrudgingly resigned to—the political bog of corruption and cynicism within which he has to work.”
I’ve only started the book, but right from the get-go I found the writing to be atmospheric and spellbinding. A 4CLS search found 20 titles by Dibdin (not all from the Aurelio Zen series). Medusa (2003) shows availability of 7 copies. I hope I can persuade our library Book Group to choose it as a selection. It’s not often one finds a literary page turner, with the bonus of being set in Italy!
Next I want to explore an Inspector Bordelli mystery by Carlo Lucarelli and one of the Inspector Cataldo series by Luigi Giacciardi. To learn more, visit www.italianmysteries.com for rundowns on other writers and some lively interviews. ~