Italian noir? Who better to ask for an overview this unique strand of European crime fiction than the expert Omar Gatti, who edits the wonderful website Noir Italiano? We invited him to write a feature explaining Italian noir, so that English-speaking crime fiction lovers can get an authentic eye on where to start…
Explaining the history of Italian crime fiction to foreign people is quite difficult. Italians tend to deal with the notion of ‘truth’ in a different way. The official explanation for many things is a veil of lies. Because of this, in my country, crime fiction novels have always been successful. In these books we get to see crimes being solved and justice delivered. It’s something that doesn’t happen enough in the world around us.
1929-1945: the Duce doesn’t read crime fiction
Everything about crime fiction in Italy started in 1929. A publishing house in Milan called Arnaldo Mondadori started releasing a set of crime books with distinctive yellow covers. Only foreign writers like SS Van Dine, Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler were printed as part of the yellow series because at that time nobody in Italy was writing crime fiction. Not yet. The venture was a great success, and caught the public imagination so much that now crime fiction is called giallo, or yellow.
The fascist dictatorship didn’t like it one bit. Mussolini hated those bloody stories – after all, they could corrupt the fascist spirit. So he started persecuting the publishers and authors. Augusto De Angelis, for example, died in 1944 at the hands of the fascists. However the crime genre was in motion, and couldn’t be stopped with violence. Today, Arnaldo Mondadori is Italy’s biggest book publisher and the company is worth €250 million.
The 1960s: a man called Scerbanenco
After World War II, Italy found itself a poor country. Reading and writing is not a priority when your stomach is empty. However by the end of the 1950s a cycle of economic development began, and it turned into a boom. The country on the whole grew richer. A tall, thin writer called Giorgio Scerbanenco has moved to Italy from Russia. In the mid-60s he began writing crime novels set in Milan. The leading character was a policeman called Duca Lamberti. Scerbanenco’s work showed the Italian people the other side of the economic boom – a dark, unhappy, evil side. One covered in blood. Italian noir was born.
Two of Scebanenco’s novels have recently been released in English. A Private Venus came out last year and has been reviewed on Crime Fiction Lover. Earlier in 2013, Hersilia Press released his book Betrayal.
The 1970s: Macchiavelli’s revolution
In the 1970s, Italy faced a tougher era. There were strikes and political instability, with demonstrations every day. The country suffered terrorist attacks on trains, banks and in public places. In 1974, an author in Bologna, a city in the north with a great socialist tradition, began writing crime novels. Loriano Macchiavelli could not have imagined at the time that his main character, Sarti Antonio, would turn out to be the longest-surviving character in Italian crime fiction. After all, Antonio suffers colitis as well as bad luck, and has no real fighting spirit. Yet the detective has been active from 1974 to the present day. Macchiavelli revolutionised Italian noir because he had the courage to reveal the real soul of Bologna, which at the time was considered to be one the country’s finest cities.
The 1980s: a police commissioner in a city of mirrors
The 80s were better than the 70s for Italy, on the surface at least. If you dig deeper, though, you’ll find more blood and crime. Fans of the genre enjoyed tales of a new police commissioner in Milan. Based in the central police station on Via Fatebenefratelli, he likes the arts and painting. He travels along the streets of the city in an Alfa Romeo. His name is Giulio Ambrosio and he’s the creation of another noir master, Renato Olivieri. Among Italy’s crime fiction detectives, Ambrosio is the one most similar to George Simenon’s Maigret. He’s a police commissioner who doesn’t use violence, instead he speaks and then he waits. Olivieri’s crime novels scratched beneath the surface of 1980s Italy, tearing away the facade.
The 1990s: Alligator blues
Marco Buratti is called Alligator because he’s a Blues musician playing in a band called The Alligators. He lives in Padua, in the rich, industrial north of Italy. He’s also a private eye but doesn’t have a plaque on his door. He’s unofficial, you see. In other words, he works for the mob. Buratti was imprisoned during the 80s but he was innocent. This gave him a hunger for the truth. He works with a gangster from Milan called Beniamino Rossini, and a former terrorist – Max ‘The Memory’. Getting to the bottom of things when you have to face both local and foreign mafia men is not easy but, Buratti has a bulldog spirit.
The character is the creation of Massimo Carlotto, one of Italy’s most important crime fiction authors. Like his main character, Carlotto suffered a wrongful conviction sent him to jail for 20 years. In his novels he shows the reality of jail, of the mob, and the connections between the mafia and politicians. He writes in a hardboiled style, like Hammet or Chandler, but all his novels are based on a real facts and are very well-researched. At the End of a Dull Day by Carlotto has been reviewed on Crime Fiction Lover, but doesn’t feature Alligator. To experience him try The Colombian Mule or Master of Knots which are available on Amazon.
2000: And now?
These days, crime fiction is enjoying great success here in Italy. Any novel with a murder in it is called ‘noir’. As a result, many books are being presented as crime fiction… Noir has become a trend. But, as I said in the opening, Italy has a strange approach to the truth. Although the country is a modern European democracy, in a recent global survey we ranked 72nd in press freedom. Our TV networks and newspapers are dominated by politicians, and they tell us what they think we should believe. The hope is that our crime fiction writers can at least carry on opening a small window on the truth. In a country like Italy, it is very important.
Thank-you to Omar Gatti of Noir Italiano for his fantastic overview of Italian crime fiction. Let’s see some more Italian noir translated into English…