More and more European crime fiction is being translated into English, to satisfy our craving for interesting settings and local colour and enhance the escapist experience.
There is much interest in Italian life and culture at the moment and Italy provides perfect locations for crime novels, with sunshine, historic towns and cities, wonderful landscapes and lots of art, architecture, food and wine. As well as work in translation there is also a substantial body of detective fiction written by English and American authors.
Donna Leon is perhaps the best-known of these: in a consistently excellent series Commissario Brunetti has been delighting readers for many years, while his home city of Venice is almost another character in the novels. A good, principled, sensitive man, Brunetti is devoted to his family and his city but despises his stupid and venal superiors at the Questura and often despairs when faced with another example of Italian bureaucracy or corruption. The mysteries always arise out of the Venetian background and unique way of life: significantly, Venetian resident Donna Leon will not allow her books to be translated into Italian, presumably in case her neighbours recognise themselves or their life-stories (although she says it’s to preserve her anonymity). Solutions tend to require the application of local knowledge (or Signora Elletra’s computer-hacking skills), while Brunetti usually finds time to visit the Rialto market to buy some fresh seafood or vegetables, to pop into bars for un ombra or to travel (by vaporetto) home for a large lunch, cooked by his wife. Paola born into the upper echelons of Venetian society, teaches English Literature at the University, which seems to involve giving one class a week then spending her time reading Henry James, criticising her husband and cooking enormous meals.
Food plays an important part in nearly all Italian crime novels, as it does in Italian life: Donna Leon has gone so far as to publish a guide – A Taste of Venice: At Table with Brunetti (written with Roberta Pianaro).
Sad devotees of these books may feel impelled to spend holidays in Venice spotting locations and trying to pinpoint exactly where Brunetti’s apartment is.
The series began in 1992 with Death at La Fenice: the most recent pb publications are A Question of Belief and Drawing Conclusions. Beastly Things appeared in hardback in April 2012.
Moving to Rome, David Hewson’s novels feature young detective Nic Costa and a lively group of fellow investigators, with mysteries centring on ancient texts, hidden tombs, a body found in the Pantheon and so on. The Washington Post called the first novel (A Season For the Dead 2003) ‘Better than the Da Vinci Code’ which may not seem much of a recommendation but in fact, these are intelligent, interesting, action-packed stories, with plenty of vivid, Roman background detail. The eighth book in the series, The Blue Demon is now in paperback: The Fallen Angel, which links a modern crime to the story of Beatrice Cenci, was published early in 2011, followed by Carnival for the Dead - set in Venice, this book features the pathologist from the Roman series, Teresa Lupo.
Before Nic Costa, there was Aurelio Zen. Michael Dibdin’s hugely popular Venetian detective is based in Rome but many of his cases take him to other parts of Italy – Tuscany (Perugia and Lucca), Venice, Calabria and Sicily. The plots are complicated, the moral problems involved in their solutions are sometimes ambiguous: Zen is a loner; a maverick, ironic, anti-establishment detective. There is usually a fair bit of thriller-type action but there are also good puzzles and several romantic entanglements. Michael Dibdin completed 11 Zen novels before his death in 2007. BBC TV has recently filmed the first three Zen novels, (Ratking, Cabal and Vendetta) with Rufus Sewell in the title role.
Rome again provides the backdrop in the stories by Ian Pears. Art historian Jonathan Argyll and Flavia di Stefano of Rome’s Art Theft Squad collaborate in several entertaining novels focussing, naturally, on art theft.
Florence is served by three novelists. The late Magdalen Nabb, writing in English about her adopted home, with her series featuring the sympathetic and compassionate Marshal Guarnaccia, uncovered the evil side of a beautiful city, exploring the aspects of Florentine life which are hidden behind closed doors. Interestingly, she began the first Guarnaccia novel while working as a curator at Casa Guidi, the home of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Vita Nuova, her final book, was published posthumously in 2008.
Now Michele Giuttari has been translated into English. He is the former head of the Florence Police Force who also spent many years investigating the Mafia in Calabria. Sicilian by birth, Giuttari seems rather well qualified to write about Chief Inspector Michele Ferrara and the nastier elements of Florentine society.
Like his creator, Ferrara has a German wife: it must be said that on the whole, detectives’ wives and girlfriends in Italian crime novels are often extremely unsympathetic – demanding, capricious or irritating, which may tell us something about Italian attitudes – but this lady is refreshingly pleasant. Not surprisingly, there is a strong sense of confidence and authenticity in these books and the style is straightforward and spare.
A Florentine Death appeared in English in 2007, followed by A Death in Tuscany (2008), Death of a Mafia Don (2009). By the time we reach A Death in Calabria (2010), Ferrara is in charge of the Anti-Mafia Investigation Department.
Marco Vichi’s Inspector Bordello is living and working in Florence in the 1960s, but is unable to forget his Second World War experiences. Saddened and often depressed by his bachelor state but not cynical about his fellow human beings, Bordello enjoys his food, wine and (guiltily) cigarettes. 3 of the 5 Inspector Bordello novels have been translated into English – start with Death in August.
Speaking of the Mafia: Sicily would seem to be a prime location for crime novels and indeed the superb Inspector Montalbano series by Andrea Camilleri brings the decaying glories of Sicilian culture vividly to life – but without dwelling too much on Cosa Nostra gangsters. Instead, many of the crimes are of the good, old-fashioned sort – family secrets, local, low-key political corruption, sexual misbehaviour – interspersed with some of the more recent problems to afflict Sicily – illegal immigration and smuggling for example. Much space is given to everyday matters – Montalbano’s love for his house on the coast and for his girlfriend Livia (thankfully absent in Genoa for much of the time, see comments on wives and girlfriends, above) and his equal passion for food, whether prepared for him and left in his refrigerator by his housekeeper, or served up at one of his favourite trattorias – no matter how urgent the investigation, like most Italians, Montalbano finds room for several courses at lunch. Here he realises he will be passing close to a restaurant which someone has recommended and manages to find a table:
A one-litre jug of very dense red wine was set before him. Montalbano poured out a glass of it and put the first bite in his mouth. He choked, coughed, and tears came to his eyes. He had the unmistakeable impression that his taste buds had caught fire. In a single draught he emptied the glass of wine, which didn’t kid around as to its alcohol content.
‘Go at it nice and easy,’ the waiter-owner said.
But what’s in it?’ asked Montalbano, still half-choking.
‘Olive oil, half an onion, two cloves of garlic, two salted anchovies, a teaspoon of fine capers, black olives, tomatoes, basil, half a pimento, salt, Pecorino cheese and black pepper,’ the man ran down the list with a hint of sadism in his voice…..
Punctuating his forkfuls with gulps of wine and alternating groans of extreme agony and unbearable pleasure……..Montalbano even had the courage to soak up the sauce left in the bottom of the bowl with his bread.
(The Scent of the Night 2000 translated into English by Stephen Sartarelli 2005)
Broad comedy is supplied by the intellectually-challenged Catarella who mans the switchboard at the police headquarters but who turns out to be amazingly gifted with computers (whereas most detectives, wherever they live and work, have little time for computers – they leave their underlings to use the new technology on their behalf, while relying on their own instincts and powers of deduction. Actually, a literary detective who spends hours staring at a screen or playing with his i-phone might not be as entertaining as one who rushes about, finding corpses and clues, talking to suspects…).
Donna Leon says:
The novels of Andrea Camilleri breathe out the sense of place, the sense of humour, and the sense of despair that fill the air of Sicily.
The series began to appear in Italy with The Shape of Water in 1994. This was translated into English and published here in 2002: the rest of the series has followed rapidly, all brilliantly translated from the original Sicilian dialect by Stephen Sartarelli, who is also responsible for the English-language versions of Marco Vichi’s books. The work of translators is not often given recognition in discussions of foreign crime fiction, but they mostly do a fantastic job – not just with Italian novels but also with Scandinavian ones and the French: let’s hear it for Laurie Thompson (Wallander novels), David Bellos (Fred Vargas’s Adamsberg novels), Reg Keeland (translator of Stieg Larsson) and all the others. The latest addition to the Montalbano series, The Track of Sand, was published in paperback in October 2010.
Two new series have started to appear in English – they’re already well established in Italy. Luigi Guicciardi’s Inspector Cataldo made his debut this year, investigating a string of deaths in a quiet town in the Appenines. As with many first books in a series, the main characters are perhaps a little shadowy and there’s not as much sense of place as in some of the other novels, but the style is plain and straightforward and the mystery is good. Inspector Cataldo’s Criminal Summer (1999) was translated into English by Iain Halliday and published 2010 by Hersilia Press.
River of Shadows by Valerio Varesi (1993) is also one of a popular series (they are televised in Italy) featuring Commissario Soneri and set in the Po valley. There is a very Dickensian feel to this novel, with its opening description of torrential rain and flooding: the plot centres on the river, the people who live and work along it and tragic events in the past. There’s another infuriating girlfriend……… This novel is not the first in the series – but perhaps it seemed the best introduction. It’s an excellent translation, this time by Joseph Farrell and has now been followed by The Dark Valley.
Others to look out for: Timothy Holme (died 1987 – you may find second-hand copies of his novels); Grace Brophy, Christobel Kent and Tobias Jones.