The Mystery in Italy

The crime fiction genre was relatively slow to catch hold in Italy although it gradually became very popular and eventually influenced some of the country's most talented writers. As in most other countries the mystery entered Italy in the form of translations of American and especially British stories. There were, however, some very early local mystery writers including Francesco Mastriani who published The Blind Woman from Sorrento (Bietti, Milan, 1973) in serial form in 1852. Emilio De Marchi published an inverted mystery (one in which the guilty person is known at the outset) entitled The Priest's Hat in 1858 (republished in 1927 by Fratelli Treves, Milan, 1927).

The genre was really begat, however, in 1929 when the publishing house Mondadori began to turn out mysteries and especially translations of U.S. and British mysteries in the "pulp' style with yellow covers. These were christened "I libri gialli" or the "yellow books". Thus "giallo" caught on as shorthand for the crime fiction genre, a term that eventually expanded to mean also thrillers and suspense and was also extended to films. Giallo (gialli, plural) became, as in most countries and especially Italy, a mass-market, popular type of literature. Gradually, indigenous writers were attracted in larger numbers to the genre. For example, Alesandro Varallo adopted an ironic tone in a number of his works (e.g. Dramma e Romanzo Poliziesco, Comoedia, 1932). Arturo Lanocita published Forty Million (Mondadori, Milan) in 1931 with comedy as the main theme. Luciano Folgore employed a surreal approach in his Colored Trap published in 1934. And, Augusto De Angelis in a series of novels (e.g. De Vincenzi e la Bruchetta di Cristallo, Sonzogno, 1974) created a serious and talented Italian police procedural set in Milan. His detective/commissioner, De Vincenzi, was a literate and clever hero who attempted to get inside the criminal's mind.

The relatively feeble beginnings of indigenous mystery writing was sharply threatened and curtailed by the Fascist government in 1941 and the genre was banned outright in 1943 as an unpatriotic in its portrayal of the state.

After WWII the importation of American hard-boiled mysteries inundated the country. By the late 1950s and early 1960s Italian writers took to the genre with gusto. One of the most important and prolific writers, Carlo Emilio Gadda, had a significant impact on later authors. His novel, That Awful Mess on Via Merulana was published in 1957 (available in English from a number of publishers - e.g. G. Braziller, N.Y., 1984). It was set in fascist Italy of the 1920s and provided a somewhat negative view of the police. It can be characterized as an anti-detective novel and led to a type of crime fiction without certainty of solution. This model was adopted and enlarged upon by a number of later writers. (See also Gadda's, Acquaintance with Grief, G. Braziller, N.Y., 1966).

By the 1960s the mystery genre attracted two types of writers - the traditional, mass-market crime fiction writers and the "literary" detective writers. The latter employed the detective structure - crime, plot, puzzle - but developed a so-called anti-detective novel which rejects the expected outcome of restored order found in most mysteries.

The traditional detective story writers grew in number and popularity through the decades after 1960. One of the best was Giorgio Scerbanenco who created a Milanese physician as his hero (see Duca and the Milan Murders, Harper and Row, N.Y. 1978). Attilo Veraldi began a hard-boiled series set in Naples in the 1970s (see The Payoff, Hamilton, London, 1978) and Carolo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini published an extremely popular novel - La Donna Della Domenica- The Sunday Woman (Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, N.Y., 1973). These two also wrote The D. Case: the Truth About the Mystery of Edwin Drood (Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, N.Y., 1992), a pastiche based on Dickens's unfinished mystery in which they resurrect Poirot, Father Brown and Holmes! The genre grew greatly in popularity and in 1980 the journal Panorama commissioned a series of stories written by a number of Italian celebrities - judges, politicians, professors, etc- related to their fields of endeavor. These booklets were called "I gialli verita" or "True detective stories" and became extremely popular and successful. In 1983 a television series - Giallosera" (The Evening Detective) was produced by the Italian TV network RAI. The series was also very popular and involved the viewing audience in attempting to solve the crimes.

The mass-market mystery writers in Italy tend to have a very regional voice. Laura Grimaldi, one of the finest current writers, is also the director of the publishing house Interno Giallo. Her stories are all set in Milan. Bruno Ventavolis is Turin-oriented, Andrea Pickett sets his hard-boiled series in Milan, Silvano la Spina employs Sicily as a crime site, Loriano Macchiavelli prefers Bologna and Corrado Augias is comfortable in Rome. Among the most popular authors today is Andrea Camilleri who's Commissario Montalbano has even been produced for television. Unfortunately, most of the work of these authors is not available in English.

There are also a few non-Italian writers who set mysteries in that country and are worthy of mention. One is the very popular Donna Leon who has created a most fascinating Venitian detective, Commissioner Brunetti. Her novels are redolent of every section of Venice and capture the personality of the city and region. Michael Didbin has created a worthy Italian policeman in Aurelio Zen who fights corruption and bureaucracy all over the country. For a glimpse of ancient Rome and its empire one might enjoy Lindsey Davis' historical mysteries as well as those of Steven Saylor. All four of these writers' many novels are readily available. Readers of Italian might well enjoy Loris Rambelli's Storia del "Giallo" Italiano (The Story of Italian Detective Fiction, Garzanti, Milan, 1979).

The second group of writers mentioned earlier who use the detective format to create what is essentially an anti-detective or postmodern novel are a very noteworthy group. Probably the best known to English readers in Umberto Eco who's Name of the Rose (Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, N.Y. 1994) was set in the 1300s with a Franciscan monk detective with the name of William of Baskerville (note the Holmsian ring to the hero's name). The best known writer of this group in literary circles, however, was Leonardo Sciascia who wrote many novels in the detective mode and also wrote a number of essays about the mystery genre. His stories were all set in crime-ridden Sicily and explored issues of political morality and corruption - especially the impact of the Mafia culture. His stories were filled with imperfect heroes, clues left for the reader to solves the crime on his or her own, and often no justice meted out to the offender. His best works include By All Means - Todo Modo- (Harper and Row, N.Y., 1977) and A Ciascuno il suo - To each His Own (or sometimes translated as A Man's Blessing, - Harper and Row, N.Y. 1968). The latter is a fascinating window on Sicilian life and one in which the bad guys win! More than a dozen of his novels are available in English. Incidentally, one can sample short crime fiction stories by Sciascia, Calvino and Grimaldi in "The New Mystery" edited by Jerome Charyn (Dutton, New York, 1993).

The mystery genre in Italy has gained great popularity since WWII and has been very creatively adopted and forged into a new form by many of its practitioners who were, and are, some of the country's finest writers. Again, the variety and ingenuity of crime fiction writers in Italy is worthy of much more attention than it presently attracts. The mystery is alive, well, and dynamic in Italy.


        Return to Mysteries in Foreign Lands

        Return to Main Menu