Whodunnit? All signs point to Rome
CRIME WRITING:Is Italy taking over from Scandinavia as crime fiction’s ideal setting? It seems that, when it comes to thrillers, sunshine and seafood risotto are giving snow and smorgasbord a run for their money, writes ARMINTA WALLACE
AS THE DAYS GET longer and the sun warmer, thoughts turn to summer holidays. But even if you can’t afford to go anywhere this year, a crime novel set in Italy could make the perfect psychological getaway – all those crumbling villas and cypress-covered hills. Urbane detectives who sit down to a proper lunch instead of grabbing a sandwich on the run. Sunshine and seafood risotto. It’s the old dolce vita, and after the winter of discontent we’ve just come through it’s a lot more appealing than the mist, rain and snow we expect from northern European crime fiction.
So many English-speaking crime writers are working the Italian job, however, that there has to be more to it than good food and great weather. There’s a real case to be made that la bella Italiais the new Scandinavia when it comes to crime fiction.
This spring sees the publication of three new Italian outings. David Hewson’s The Fallen Angelis the eighth in his Nic Costa series, investigating present-day murders that dig deep into the murky history of Rome. White Deathis just the second adventure for the Parma PI known as Castagnetti, but already his creator, Tobias Jones, is being hailed as the new Michael Dibdin, the godfather of Italian crime writing in English.
As for Conor Fitzgerald, the news that his full name is Conor Fitzgerald Deane and that he’s the son of the writer and academic Seamus Deane will come as no surprise to anyone who was impressed by his crime debut, The Dogs of Rome, last year.
The new book in his series featuring the American-born commissioner Alec Blume – he plans to write at least six – is called The Fatal Touch. Fitzgerald lives in Rome, where he works as a financial translator. Italy, he points out, is a long way from being the new Scandinavia. “The Scandinavians have a good society with a nasty underbelly. In Italy it’s almost the reverse; they know they have a bad society. Usually detective fiction is about setting the world to rights, so if you place it in Italy you’ve got a problem. Crimes do not get solved; court cases never finish.”
But maybe that’s a plus for crime writers, who seem to be drawn to Italy like bees to honey. Jones, like Fitzgerald, has a long-standing Italian connection: his wife is from Parma, where he lived for five years, and he speaks the language fluently. For Hewson, moving to Italy was much more of a leap into the creative dark.
“I’ve always written books that aren’t set in England, because I really believe in writing about what you don’t know,” he says. “It makes you work harder as a writer, to create that world.”
Hewson used Venice as a backdrop for his first book, but when he went to Rome for a couple of days to proofread the manuscript he was smitten. “I moved there, enrolled at a language college, studied Italian and got to know the city,” he says. “Just bet the bank on it, really – and it was literally betting the bank, because I was at the end of a contract with my previous publisher and about to get dumped.”
The risk paid off. All 11 of Hewson’s books have now been signed up for a television series that will begin filming next year, and his Italian inspiration shows no sign of drying up. “Rome is a place where you can see everything good and bad about the human race within a quarter of a mile of the Piazza Venezia,” he says. “I’ve got a notebook full of ideas. Every time I go I come back with three more ideas for books I’ll never be able to write. There’s a saying in Rome, ‘ Non basta una vita’: ‘One lifetime’s not enough.’ ”
For Tobias Jones one of the most fruitful aspects of Italy is that the Italian sunshine conceals some very shivery shadows. “It’s a bit like California,” he says. “The chiaroscuro – the light-dark contrast – is very attractive. The sunlit, happy, confident state and the dark corners that Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald wrote about. It’s the same with Italy. We all think it’s this Arcadian pastoral bliss, an idyll we can escape to. But the contrast between that and the crimes that go on there is captivating for both reader and writer.”
Jones is the author of a highly acclaimed factual book called The Dark Heart of Italy, and is working on a true-crime study of an Italian serial killer as well as his third Castagnetti novel. “People associate Italy with crime,” he says. “They know that’s where the Mafia is. They know it’s a murky world that’s full of illusionism and smoke and mirrors. And that, as a backdrop for a crime novel, is very attractive, because nothing is ever what it seems. Everything is more complicated, and complicated, for a crime novelist, is wonderful. It gives you a very satisfying murky middle ground.”
ITALY IS ALSO the home of some less obvious elements of crime writing. “If you’re writing crime fiction,” says David Hewson, “you’re writing about notions of justice. And I think Rome is an incredibly good backdrop for that, because a lot of our images of what society should be like came from grand ideas which are Roman in origin. Our justice system, our language, even our faith. That makes it a very apposite setting for stories about people struggling with moral issues.”
Hewson relishes the contrast between high-flown ideals and hideous realities. “My first book, A Season for the Dead, was inspired by the paintings at the Church of Santo Stefano Rotondo. I was very struck by how this religion that was about love and beauty and faith could produce all those paintings of bloody martyrdom: Tarantinos on the walls.”
Hewson’s sixth book is woven around the character of Caravaggio – “beautiful paintings, but a monster who ends up murdering somebody” – while The Fallen Angelfeatures the 16th-century Italian noblewoman Beatrice Cenci. This approach, he says, reflects the reality of daily life in Rome, where you can’t really avoid getting up close to an awful lot of history.
“You can still see the house where Beatrice Cenci lived. You can see where she was executed. You can walk up the hill and see where she was buried until Napoleon’s soldiers dug her up and kicked her bones about. There aren’t many places in the world where history is so vividly part of the present – which is what interests me. I don’t write historical novels: I write about the present, and history’s place in it.”
Another aspect of Italy that translates well into crime fiction is the language. Readers are, it seems, happy to accept a smattering of Italian words in an English text; but only a smattering. Fitzgerald, whose work as a translator makes him superaware of the niceties of speech patterns, says he has to be careful not to overdo it.
“I have a bee in my bonnet about this; it’s the old Irish obsession with a loss of language,” he says. “I wrote my first novel, deliberately, as if it were already in translation from the Italian. That meant I had to be very careful with speech patterns: I couldn’t have people cursing in the way that Italians don’t curse, for example. In the second one I gave Alec Blume an Irish character to interact with, which helped.”
Blume’s sense of humour helps as well. Jones’s Castagnetti, for his part, escapes from the stresses and strains of fighting crime by keeping bees. But he’s also partial to a glass of Malvasia – at any hour of the day. “That’s the cheap-as-chips local fizz in Parma,” Jones says. “Quite often the bars are full of men drinking it at 10 in the morning. I wanted my books to have a hard-boiled edge to them. A few years ago there was a vogue for very effete crime fiction. There’d be a chessboard in an oil painting in a convent, and the whole crime could be solved by scraping away the oil and proving that the chess piece had been moved – you know the sort of thing. It was all very camp. The Lew Archer model – the hard-drinking, hard-living private eye – is a bit of a stereotype. But I went back to it because I was so bored with that very educated crime figure.”
If we’re looking for true grit in our crime novels, Jones suggests we check out the Italian crime writers themselves. “Many of them are retired judges, magistrates and lawyers who’ve worked at the coalface of crime in Italy. They have, sometimes literally, done the time.’’
His favourite is Giancarlo De Cataldo; “Gianrico Carofiglio is also very good; so is Massimo Carlotto, who was in prison for a long time, and on the run.” But then, he concludes, true crimes in Italy are worth writing about. “I mean, we’ve got Lord Lucan, and maybe Jack the Ripper. But they’ve got a dozen cases a month where there’s a drug-dealing dwarf and a clairvoyant priest and, I don’t know, a one-legged tattoo artist or something. So actually, as a novelist, all you’ve got to do is read the papers and let your mind run with the fantasies.”
Which has to be good news for readers of crime fiction. This Italian romance looks set to last.
White Death, by Tobias Jones, is published by Faber, £12.99; The Fatal Touch, by Conor Fitzgerald: Bloomsbury, £11.99; The Fallen Angel, by David Hewson: Macmillan, £12.99
'Iss rilly rilly urgint': Classic Italian crime
Aurelio Zen lounged on the sofa like a listless god, bringing the dead back to life
Michael Dibdin, Vendetta(1990)
Who wouldn’t want to read a book with an opening sentence like that? If the BBC’s recent series hasn’t already inspired you to revisit all the late Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen stories, now would be a good time to start. The labyrinthine plots reward a second reading, and when you slow down and take a good look around you’ll be charmed by the detail in the writing.
Seafood antipasto, fish soup, boiled octopus dressed with olive oil and lemon, four mullets (two fried, two grilled). And two little glasses, filled to the brim, of a tangerine liqueur with an explosive alcohol level, the pride and joy of Enzo the restaurateur
Andrea Camilleri, The Patience of the Spider(2007)
Quirky to the point of grotesque, Camilleri isn’t to everyone’s taste, but he is Italian, and his books feature the kind of cod-Italian dialogue – “Iss rilly rilly urgint” – no English-speaking writer could get away with. In Italian it’s actually genuine Sicilian dialect. If you do get into Insp Montalbano there are at least a dozen available, so you can gorge yourself silly in Sicily.
He turned left and passed the tower of San Boldo, then walked down from the bridge and into Calle del Tintor and went past the pizzeria. Next to it a shop selling cheap purses was still open; behind the counter sat a young Chinese girl, reading a Chinese newspaper.
Donna Leon, Drawing Conclusions, just published
This is the 20th volume for Leon’s veteran Venetian cop Guido Brunetti, and with Venice itself firmly established as a central character in the series a welcome development is the emergence of the feisty supersecretary Signorina Elettra as Brunetti’s occasional undercover sidekick. Trawl back through these and you’ll experience the breadth of Leon’s interests, from immigration to war crimes to, in this case, climate change and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.