Boy, do we need the distractions of crime fiction in 2017 more than ever. Not that the genre is full of escapism that doesn’t deal with the real world (in fact, engagements with the problems of society are not only advisable for the genre these days but almost de rigueur). Serious elements, however, don’t undercut the need for the customary skills readers of Red Herrings cultivate: narrative grip, plotting, character, etc. And as the most dispiriting of political landscapes looms ahead of us, we can at least immerse ourselves in a different world for a few hours, where unpleasant characters are generally given a reckoning rather than the nuclear codes. And there are things to look forward to in 2017, aren’t there? In my own case, I’m cheerful; I’ve been asked to emcee the Dagger Awards dinner again, which is always fun (though I have to lay off the wine). And this time, if I acknowledge the various groups in the room again – from writers to publishers to agents et al. – I’d better not forget a profession from which I earn a crust: the journalists gave me a flea in my ear for not mentioning this key group in 2016.

Other reasons to be cheerful? Well, not the march of Anno Domini and my already punctured resolutions, but at least I’m still the FT‘s crime critic, and I’ve joined Laura Wilson at the Guardian (she’s still doing crime, but I’ve taken over from John O’Connell, covering thrillers). And it’s encouraging that foolhardy publishers (will they never learn?) have said yes to two books of mine this year, American Noir in April – and the next one, which is Italian Cinema. Speaking of the latter, you won’t be surprised to hear that crime films and TV are handsomely represented. Now – did you know that there is more to Italian crime films and TV than Montalbano eating pesce in his favourite oceanside restaurant? If not, read on…

 

Inspector Montalbano

Luca Zingaretti as Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano
Luca Zingaretti as Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano

We have to start with Camilleri’s sybaritic copper, don’t we? The different – but positive – response of British viewers to the beautifully shot series Montalbano compared with that accorded to bleaker Nordic drama was perhaps predicated on the degree of reality that audiences found in the show. While viewers were prepared to accept the unforgiving urban landscapes of Scandinavian film and crime fiction as realistic, they looked to the Italian crime drama series for the warm glow of escapism (that word again!) with its Mediterranean setting, blue skies and personable Latin hero tackling none-too-gritty crimes. All of this was provided by this glossily made series, in which the town of Vigàta, with its unspoilt, antique beauty (and with nary a scribble of graffiti), provided a sumptuous wish-we-were-there backdrop. With the canny casting of Luca Zingaretti in the title role, the series carefully laundered out the provocative elements that occasionally surface in Andrea Camilleri’s much-loved original novels.

However, the television adaptations do economical justice to such books as The Snack Thief, The Voice of the Violin, The Shape of Water and The Terracotta Dog, and it is a pleasurable activity for us to share the gracious lifestyle of the Italian copper. His life is stressed but alleviated by long lunches at his favourite restaurant and trysts with his on-off girlfriend Livia (played by Katharina Böhm). The series is always watchable, if rarely challenging, and gave birth to a prequel in 2013, addressing the cases of a younger Montalbano (see below). Montalbano has a way of finding a clandestine relationship between a host of crimes. These involve dirty doings within the Sicilian Mafia (usually on the periphery) and respectable business institutions. But while the characterisation here is as adroit as one could wish, it is the plotting that remains the chef-d’oeuvre of Montalbano. So popular is the series in Italy that Camilleri’s home town of Porto Empedocle adopted the name Vigàta, although the series itself is filmed elsewhere in Sicily.

 

Fog and Crimes

With Luca Barbareschi (as Commissario Franco Soneri) eternally chewing a cigar in the fashion of Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo, this efficiently made series channels both American and European models and is never less than persuasive with the show’s dour, low-key central character. However, its very dourness – which infuses every aspect of the production – with no compensatory shafts of light is what probably led to the cancellation of the series. Another audience-displeasing factor may have been the audacious avoidance of any sympathy for the short-tempered gloomy hero (which is certainly not an insoluble problem – see John Thaw’s Morse), particularly in his unpleasant, unforgiving treatment of his girlfriend. The setting of the city of Ferrara in the valley of the Po River (known for the eponymous fog) is utilised with some skill, and the filmmakers treat a variety of moral issues with some intelligence. But in the crowded European crime series market, Fog and Crimes was simply not able to demonstrate staying power. (The directors were Riccardo Donna and Gianpaolo Tescari.)

 

Inspector De Luca

Antonio Frazzi’s Inspector De Luca is an unusual crime series set between 1938 and 1948, from the height of Italy’s Fascist regime to the end of the tumultuous post-war period, in which Inspector De Luca investigates and solves crimes in the city of Bologna and along the Adriatic coast. With little or no regard for those in power, whoever they happen to be, his solitary, uncompromising character often lands him in trouble, but his respect is reserved for truth and justice alone. In the four TV movies of the series – taken from the three novels by bestselling mystery writer Carlo Lucarelli, plus an extra story to introduce the character – De Luca always ultimately gets to the bottom of his cases, although what he finds often leaves a bitter aftertaste. The casting of the television series was impeccable, notably in the choice of Alessandro Preziosi as the compromised protagonist.

While working on his thesis on the history of law enforcement during the Fascist period in Italy, Carlo Lucarelli interviewed a man who had been an officer in the Italian police force for 40 years. He had started as a member of the Fascist political police, but, towards the end of World War II, when the Fascists were on the run, he answered to partisan formations then in control of the country. His job? To investigate the Fascist hierarchy, his former employers. After the war, when regular elections were held and a government formed, he was employed by the Italian Republic. Part of his job was again to investigate and arrest his former employers, this time the partisans. Carlo Lucarelli, however, never finished his doctoral thesis. Instead, Commissario De Luca was born, and overnight his creator became one of Italy’s most acclaimed crime authors. The De Luca trilogy (in splendid translations by Michael Reynolds) begins with of Carte Blanche (published in 2006 in English), set in April 1945, the final frenetic days of the Salò Republic. A brutal murder on the good side of town lands De Luca in the middle of a hornet’s nest where the rich and powerful mix drugs, sex, money and murder. It was followed by The Damned Season (2007), in which De Luca is on the run under an assumed identity to avoid reprisals for the role he played during the Fascist dictatorship. Blackmailed by a member of the partisan police, De Luca is obliged to investigate a series of murders, becoming a reluctant player in Italy’s post-war power struggle. The final novel, Via delle Oche (2008), won the Scerbanenco Prize. The year is 1948, with the country’s fate soon to be decided in bitterly contested national elections. A corpse surfaces in a brothel at the heart of Bologna’s red light district, and De Luca finds himself unwilling to look the other way when evidence in the murder points to prominent local power brokers. The novels – whose tone often veers alarmingly between the sardonic and the massively cynical – are built around one key thesis: the deforming effect of Italy’s compromised, slippery politics on every individual, not least the pragmatic but beleaguered De Luca.

 

Romanzo Criminale

It was inevitable that Giancarlo De Cataldo’s novel about three young criminals in Rome would lead to a film adaptation and, subsequently, a television series, but the material was a victim of its own success, with the dramatic possibilities entering a repetitive, cyclical mode over two seasons on TV. The refusal (by director Stefano Sollima) to make any of the selfserving, violent characters sympathetic – or in possession of even minimal moral or humane qualities – was already overextended to some extent in the highly successful film, where it mattered less; however, this becomes a major problem with the television series. In the case of, say, Brian De Palma’s Scarface, we are happy to see a monstrous, overindulgent but charismatic character bring about his own destruction, and the fact that there is no attempt to engage our sympathy is not really relevant. Over the course of the Romanzo Criminale series, however efficiently made, this problem assumes far greater importance, particularly as we are soon faced with the ‘one damn thing after another’ syndrome – the bad behaviour by the brutal and ruthless protagonists is repeated ad infinitum and ad nauseam. Nevertheless, both the film and the TV series are made with considerable skill and acted with unshowy truthfulness, which largely keeps such reservations at bay.

 

Inspector Nardone

Such is the strength of recent Italian crime television that a slew of impressive series have reached UK shores, including this solidly made if conventional entry. The show is based on a real figure: Mario Nardone (played here by Sergio Assisi) was a genuine legend in Milan during the 1950s and 1960s. Straightforward, persistently stubborn but also endowed with a strong moral code and a notable sense of humanity, Nardone has deep loves, including for his long-suffering family, good cuisine and sardonic humour. The series is efficiently made, if rather quotidian.

 

The Young Montalbano

Montalbano returns, rejuvenated and recast in Gianluca Maria Tavarelli’s The Young Montalbano. Following the massive success of Inspector Montalbano, the volatile Italian policeman returned to television screens at the start of his career, with all the integrity intact but less of the experience of his older, wiser self. Starring Michele Riondino in the title role, the programme is set in the early 1990s and gives an insight into the private life and early crime-fighting career of the idiosyncratic Sicilian detective. The prequel series was popular in Italy and debuted in the UK on BBC Four in 2013. Exhausted by the never-ending hillsides of his rural Sicilian beat, the Deputy Inspector is in the middle of investigating a murder when he finds himself promoted to Inspector and dispatched to his childhood home of Vigàta. There he is called upon to take control of the local police station and gradually build his team, with both Fazio Senior and Fazio Junior, Domenico ‘Mimì’ Augello and the clownish Officer Catarella. Production values here are a match for the Zingaretti episodes, but if there is a caveat – apart from the continuing unreality of the policing on display – it is that the dynamic of the later series is established too quickly, with little chance for organic growth; the fractious relationship between Montalbano and idiotic comic relief Catarella is in place by the second episode, as are – similarly precipitately – several other elements of the original show.

 

This article originally appeared in Red Herrings, the CWA Magazine

Barry’s latest books are Brit Noir, Detective: Crime Uncovered and (coedited with David Stuart Davies) The Sherlock Holmes Book. Forthcoming: American Noir and Italian Cinema

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