The killer was a young Calabrian male whose mother’s virtue had been slandered. He had been in town for only a few days and didn’t know that, in this part of Italy, slandering someone’s mother was almost as common as saying ‘Ciao’. A sad story of cultural misunderstanding.
These lines, from Marco Vichi’s Death in August, book 1 in his Inspector Bordelli Mysteries series, highlight the cultural background information that Italian crime fiction can offer readers. And this passage doesn’t even refer to the primary crime in the story!
Italians have a strong sense of regional identity. It could be said that for Italians, knowing where a person is from is more important than knowing their name and even more than knowing what they do. In Italian crime fiction, place plays a crucial role, essentially on equal footing with the characters, which means that each series is not just identified with the city in which it is set but is deeply rooted in its culture. In this way, foreign readers can get an insider’s perspective into local contexts. These are not just books set in an exotic place, they are cultural illustrations.
In Italy, mysteries and crime fiction are referred to as gialli (yellows). In 1929 publisher Mondadori began publishing a series of the genre, many of them translations of English and American books, with yellow covers, thus the term. Readers continue to refer to the genre in this way with gialli applied to a broad range of stories that have a crime as a plot element.
The king of Italian crime fiction is author Andrea Camilleri with his Inspector Montalbano Mysteries. The first book in the original series was published in 1994 in a mixture of standard Italian and Sicilian dialect. This was a bold move on the part of Camilleri; as a Sicilian, he felt limited writing in Italian. All thirty-plus books in the series contain parts in dialect, underlining the cultural uniqueness of Sicily and spreading knowledge about the island and its heritage as well as the social problems it faces—corruption, drugs, people trafficking, racism, violence, and the wealth gap. Each story, of approximately uniform length and number of chapters, illustrates the Sicilian way of life in animated detail and, thanks to Camilleri’s brilliant skill as a writer, the intensely human aspects of his characters. It’s no wonder that the TV adaptations, with actor Luca Zingaretti in the starring role, are wildly popular throughout the world.
For the English versions, translator Stephen Sartarelli has ingeniously rendered challenging passages and, through endnotes (a tactic also adopted in other series), explains cultural details—politics, words that appear in dialect, and even ingredients mentioned in the by-now famous dishes that Montalbano loves—to enhance the reading experience.
As a translator, I can appreciate how difficult it has been for Sartarelli to deal with the Sicilian speech patterns and dialect without flattening them out or exaggerating, leaving just enough differentness when appropriate. For example in Excursion to Tindari there’s this passage: “No favorites, now!” shouted one, barely taller than a midget, nestling up under the inspector’s nose. “We must proceed in strick flabettical order!”
Another greatly popular series that has been adapted for television is Antonio Manzini’s Rocco Schiavone Mysteries, translated into English by Antony Shugaar. With this series, regional differences provide a central conflict: what happens when a tough guy cop from Rome gets transferred for disciplinary reasons to Aosta in the extreme northwest of the country at the foot of the Alps? The differences between Rome and Aosta couldn’t be greater. Surrounded by snow, mountains and locals who are sensitive to form and speak a Franco-Provençal patois, thoroughly Roman Rocco Schiavone is completely out of his element. This mirrors many Italian’s worst nightmare, that of being uprooted from the city or region of their birth. Manzini, who considers himself attuned to the hard-boiled genre, writes tight dialogue with short sentences and not much wasted, but plenty of depth.
Naples is the setting for the Commissario Ricciardi Mysteries, authored by Maurizio de Giovanni and also translated, primarily, by Antony Shugaar. Naples has always been a colorful and vibrant city and this series, set during the 1930’s Fascist era, also reveals its mysterious, superstitious side. Ricciardi has the gift (or curse) of seeing and hearing the final moments of a victim’s life, which helps him solve crimes but is also a source of personal tension. Each book is linked to a season and generally starts off with a glimpse of the crime, but without revealing a name or details. Like Ricciardi’s vision, just enough to catch one’s attention. Here are the opening lines of I Will Have Vengeance: The Winter of Commissario Ricciardi:
The dead child was standing motionless at the intersection between Santa Teresa and the museum. He was watching two boys who were sitting on the ground, playing Giro d’Italia with marbles. As he watched them, he kept saying, “Can I go down? Can I go down?”
Marco Vichi’s Inspector Bordelli Mysteries mentioned above (translated primarily by Stephen Sartarelli) are set in 1960s Florence. Bordelli is a beloved fictional figure among Florentines who remember those years, or who lived through them as children, as he and his exploits exemplify the times with great accuracy. English-language readers may, however, miss the whimsical meaning of some of the names. For example the medical examiner is named Dr Diotivede (literally, Dr God-sees-you), while some are more obvious: I recall a squalid figure in one of the books having the surname Lo Porco (The Pig).
In all four of these series, the characters and setting are what drive the story, as if the crime is secondary, a sort of excuse to bring together certain people in a particular place. Instead, these next two series have the crime in the foreground, perhaps because the authors come from the law-enforcement world.
The Guido Guerrieri Series by Gianrico Carofiglio (with English translations by various translators) is closer to a legal thriller as its protagonist is an attorney in the southern Adriatic port city of Bari in the region of Puglia. Carofiglio, a former prosecutor, knows his subject intimately and cleverly presents the Italian legal system in all its faults and virtues, while at the same time offering a view into the region’s society and the lives of the characters.
The seven-book Michele Ferrara Series, by former police commissioner Michele Giuttari (translated by Howard Curtis and others), is another series set in Florence. Giuttari was a key player in the infamous Monster of Florence case and his years in law enforcement have influenced his approach to crime fiction. The books in the series often deal with gruesome crimes and violent events with Chief Superintendent Michele Ferrara investigating complex cases.
This is only a short list of some of the Italian crime fiction series available in English. There are numerous other top-notch series and stand-alone books that I haven’t mentioned or don’t make it into translation. (I wish I could offer a longer list of those that deserve attention.) Part of the problem regarding translations might be that Italian readership cannot generate the sales numbers that attract mainstream foreign rights buyers. (Italian is not a widespread language like French or Spanish.) One additional note is that Italian crime fiction is male-dominated, a fact that has driven some female authors to assume male pen names. Hopefully, Italian publishers will become more open-minded as well as aggressive about seeking foreign rights sales and that international publishers will recognize readers’ acceptance of well translated books and expand their offerings.
By Lori Hetherington
Lori Hetherington is an Italian-English translator and writer living in Florence since the 1980s. In recent years, her work has revolved around independent authors although she also collaborates with publishers and other publishing professionals. She is currently ghostwriting an inspirational memoir entitled, ‘A Brave Heart’.