A good detective story taking place in a beautiful part of Italy is a real treat for people who enjoy reading crime mysteries and also happen to love Italy. Use this website to find out more about the locations, the lifestyle and the food and the wine experienced by the characters created by your favourite authors.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Why Italy is a popular setting for crime writers


People who enjoy reading crime fiction and also love Italy are always delighted to discover a good crime novel set in an interesting location there. 

Among the best authors who write crime novels in English that are set in Italy are Michael Dibdin, Donna Leon, Tomothy Holme and Magdalen Nabb. 

But thanks to good translators, we are now able to read the works of Italian crime writers as well.

The Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri is perhaps the most famous, but also highly recommended are Michele Giuttari, Valerio Varesi and Marco Vichi. to name but a few.

And it is always a joy to discover less well-known writers, as well as writers not normally known for books set in Italy, who have chosen to use the country as a backdrop for just one novel.

The range of crime novels set in Italy and the variety of locations they feature is constantly increasing.

Translations of crime novels by Italian writers are now much more readily available, for the first time making these books accessible to people who can’t read Italian. 

The historic cities and rugged landscapes of Sicily provide the backdrop for Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano novels
The historic cities and rugged landscapes of Sicily provide
the backdrop for Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano novels
The late Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano series set in Sicily has now been translated into more than 30 different languages and a dubbed version of the television adaptation has been shown on British television, which has helped to increase the interest in and demand for crime novels with an Italian setting.

Reading crime novels in translation is fascinating because it offers a window on day to day life in Italy, enabling us to see how people spend their time and what their preoccupations are as well as what wine they choose when they go to their local bar. 

So what makes Italy such a good setting for this genre? Many people like Italy for the weather, the scenery, the architecture, the art, the culture and let’s not forget the food and the wine. But a good crime novel set in Italy should be more than just an opportunity for armchair travel by the reader. The setting has to play an important part in the novel. 

A lot of writers are fascinated with Italy’s justice system and the much talked about corruption in the country because it can give them more freedom when they are plotting their novels.

Italy provides writers with the opportunity for ambiguity and non resolution at the end of the book, whereas traditionally readers have come to expect a credible, but tidy finish at the end of a book set in Britain.

For example, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers would allude to the fact that the murderer would hang at the end of their books because at the time they were written they thought this would provide a satisfactory resolution for the reader.

But there is often no neat conclusion at the end of a crime novel set in Italy. Andrea Camilleri has said that in Italy it can take years to find someone guilty of a crime and then there is often no appropriate punishment at the end of it all. Italians are big believers in hidden and ulterior motives and even when someone is arrested for a crime they think this won’t necessarily be the end of it.

Rome is the home city of Michael Dibdin's central  character, the detective Aurelio Zen
Rome is the home city of Michael Dibdin's central
character, the detective Aurelio Zen 
Michael Dibdin uses the Italian word dietrologia to describe this. It means the facts behind the facts, or conspiracy theory, and it is something Italians have no difficulty believing in. This makes Italy an ideal background for modern writers who want to make the investigation of lesser importance and concentrate more on the personalities of the victim, witnesses and investigators that they have created.

The perspective of the outsider is a popular device in crime fiction and so having a foreign visitor in Italy as a central character often works well. It enables the protagonist to cast a cold eye on the society that surrounds him and his detachment is often the key to his success. 

This can also work well if the character is Italian but far from home. For example with Commissario Aurelio Zen in Michael Dibdin’s novels there is a reason he feels like an outsider in Rome, which the reader eventually finds out about.

In some novels Italian police officers are working far away from their home town for operational reasons, such as Magdalen Nabb’s Maresciallo Guarnaccia, a Sicilian in Florence and Timothy Holme’s Commissario Peroni, a Neapolitan in northern Italy.

Modern crime novelists have almost become travel writers, because they describe their settings so well. This is because to the writer the location is a character in the story in its own right.

At the very least a modern crime novel set in Italy can take you on a trip to an unfamiliar city. Crime writers tell it the way it is. Unlike most travel writers they will tell you things you didn’t know and maybe would prefer not to know about a particular place.

They will tell you about day to day life, what people talk about in the bars, how the place smells, how the transport system works, or doesn’t work, in some cases.

Donna Leon sets her Commissario Brunetti novels amid the unique splendours of Venice
Donna Leon sets her Commissario Brunetti novels amid
the unique splendours of Venice
If you are lucky, as a little bonus, they will also tell you what dishes to order for lunch and the best restaurants to go to for an authentic experience of the local cuisine, as in Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti novels set in Venice.

But good crime writers do not forget the rules of the genre and that plot is of paramount importance. Readers expect to be provided with clues, suspects, and motives. They want to be entertained by a story that allows them to sit in an armchair and try to work out the solution. The characters have to be plausible and their motivation for what they do needs to be credible.

Most of all, the book needs to have an authentic background that the reader can believe in, which is why the use of the setting is so important. 
The crime, or detective, novel dates back to the mid 19th century. One of the earliest detective novels, The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe, was published in 1841 and then Wilkie Collins wrote The Woman in White in 1860.

In 1887 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave the genre fresh impetus by creating Sherlock Holmes. His skill in detection consisted of logical deduction based on minute details that had escaped the notice of others.

The classical detective novel was at the height of its popularity in Britain between about 1920 and 1940, the era of four famous women writers, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.

Their novels provided entertainment that relied upon the reader’s interest in a logical pursuit of clues honestly put before them.

Books by these ladies are still regularly borrowed from public libraries and made into films and yet publishers and literary critics consistently claim this form of the genre has had its day. 


The atmospheric city of Florence is the setting for the
dark novels of English author Magdalen Nabb
The contemporary crime novel, or detective novel, shifts the emphasis from the clues to the characters involved in the story. It is the unveiling of the different layers of personality that lies at the root of the plot rather than just logical deduction. The personality of the detective is a vital ingredient as it is he or she whose insights produce the solution to the puzzle.

Writers who achieved this transition well include P D James, Ruth Rendell, H R F Keating, Colin Dexter and Reginald Hill.

Their books are more likely to involve professional policemen, who carry out thorough detective work rather than just relying on sudden flashes of intuition,

In Italy, people call a crime story un romanzo giallo, because since the 1930s crime novels have usually had yellow covers.

The earliest Italian mystery novels are thought to be Il Mio Cadavere (My Corpse) and La Cieca di Sorrento (The Blind Woman from Sorrento) both written by Francesco Mastriani in 1852.

Other Italian writers then began experimenting with the genre and in 1910 there was an important development when The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes were published in Il Corriere della Sera.

In 1929 Mondadori established their libri gialli series and novels by famous foreign writers, including Agatha Christie, were published in Italian. The first Italian writer to be published in the series was Alessandro Varaldo with Il Sette Bello (Seven is Beautiful) in 1931 featuring police inspector Ascanio Bonich. This is considered to be the first Italian detective story.

The fascist Government asked Mondadori to ensure that at least 20 per cent of its literary production was by Italian writers and as a result more Italians started to write gialli and to imitate foreign authors.

But by 1941 Mussolini had decided he didn’t like the genre and told Mondadori to stop publishing gialli for moral reasons. He thought they would corrupt young people.

After the war, Mondadori began publishing foreign writers again, but gradually more Italian crime writers began to emerge and now hundreds are regularly published, including best selling novelists such as Andrea Camilleri. 

Sadly, Camilleri died last year, but he has left us the wonderful gift of Montalbano, who, like Sherlock Holmes, often notices the little details that other people miss. 


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Saturday, February 29, 2020

Fatal Remedies


A Commissario Brunetti novel by Donna Leon


When a brick is thrown through the plate glass window of a travel agency in Venice the police officers sent to investigate the incident are shocked to discover that the offender is Paola Brunetti, the wife of Commissario Guido Brunetti.

Her action is meant to be a protest because she believes the travel agency are organising sex tours to Thailand.

But her deliberate act of vandalism has immediate repercussions for Brunetti’s police career. He is sent home on what is termed ‘administrative leave’ for an indefinite period.

He spends his time reading his favourite books about ancient Greece until his 'administrative leave' is interrupted when the owner of the travel agency is found to have been brutally murdered. 

A water bus (vaporetto) approaching Rialto Bridge.
Brunetti takes the decision to return to work and as soon as he arrives at the Questura he is put in charge of the investigation into the man’s death by his superior officer, Vice Questore Patta.

Eventually Brunetti discovers that the murdered man was involved in a money making racket that will have terrible consequences for its victims.

But he also finds out who is responsible for the brutal killing, bringing some kind of closure not just for the man’s widow, but also for his own wife, Paola.

As always Donna Leon gives the reader intriguing glimpses of daily life in Venice. On one occasion, Brunetti is with his sergeant, Vianello, on the No 82 vaporetto on the Grand Canal.

They make a last minute decision to get off at Rialto but the boat has already moved away from the jetty. Vianello goes to the sailor, who he knows, and the sailor signals to the captain to reverse the boat to enable them to get off.

This causes the boat to lurch and a woman nearly falls over, but Brunetti holds on to her to steady her.

Anyone who has ever been to Venice and been on the No 82 vaporetto will be instantly transported back to the sights, smells and sounds of the Grand Canal.

Fatal Remedies is a gripping and well plotted crime story set against the uniquely beautiful and often mysterious backdrop of Venice.

Buy Fatal Remedies by Donna Leon 



Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Rounding the Mark


An Inspector Montalbano Mystery by Andrea Camilleri


During a bracing swim in the sea, Montalbano encounters a floating corpse next to him in the water. His investigative instincts are aroused when he discovers the victim is a man who is believed to have been buried some time ago. 

The Inspector is also investigating the circumstances of a hit and run accident that killed a young child and quickly discovers there is a connection with his floating corpse.

The compassionate Inspector is horrified to uncover a child trafficking racket taking place in Sicily that will have disastrous consequences for its young victims. He vows to avenge the child killed by the hit and run driver and bring the evil organisers of the trafficking to justice, whatever the risk to himself.

The fishing village of Punta Secca in southeastern Sicily is the
 location used for Montalbano's house on the beach in the TV
Although Camilleri is dealing with a horrific subject that sickens his protagonist, Montalbano, the author skilfully mixes tragedy with comedy, also showing the reader the absurdities of day to day life in Sicily and the bizarre way the police force is run by the people at the top. 

Throughout the book Montalbano is constantly on the look out for an excellent meal and trying to keep his long distance love affair with his girlfriend Livia going.

This is another gripping and entertaining mystery from Camilleri, despite the seriousness of the subject he is dealing with. 

The 14th series of the TV drama Inspector Montalbano, based on Camilleri's novels and starring Luca Zingaretti in the title role, is due on screens in Italy in March this year, taking the total number of episodes so far to 37.