From Napoli to Nottinghamshire: Italian crime novel The Bastards of Pizzofalcone & BBC crime drama Sherwood

Maurizio de Giovanni, The Bastards of Pizzofalcone, tr. from the Italian by Antony Shugaar (Europa Editions 2015) 

First line: Giuseppe Lojacono was sitting in the squad car, in the passenger seat, back straight, hands motionless on his thighs.

It’s been a while since I read some Italian crime fiction, so Maurizio de Giovanni’s The Bastards of Pizzofalcone was a perfect fit: the first in a series about a ragtag group of police officers who are thrown together after being transferred to the troubled Pizzofalcone police precinct in Naples.

The precinct’s former, corrupt officers have been packed off in disgrace, so it’s up to the new guys to rescue its reputation. There’s Giuseppe Lojacono, a Sicilian with fine investigative instincts and a chequered past; Marco Aragona, a suntanned rich kid who acts like he’s a film star; Ottavia Calabrese, a computer genius with an oppressive home life, Francesco Romano, a terse chap with anger management issues; Giorgio Pisanelli, an old-timer obsessed with a set of suicides he thinks are murders; Allesandra Di Nardo, a firearms whizz stifled by her family’s conformity, and the ever steady Commissario Luigi Palma, better known as Gigi. Together, they are the Bastards of Pizzofalcone.

The novel is billed as ‘noir’, but I’m not sure that’s totally accurate. The emphasis is very much on character and on the mechanics of investigating various cases: the murder of a wealthy notary’s wife, a suspected kidnapping, the alleged suicides. The acknowledgements reveal that the author is a fan of Ed McBain, and I think that offers us a great way to see this novel – as the first in a modern, Neapolitan ’87th Precinct’ series. There’s also a TV adaptation – here’s a nice introductory snippet with subtitles…

Chain of evidence: from Napoli to Nottinghamshire

Reading The Bastards of Pizzofalcone made me think about other Italian crime novels I’ve loved. This led me to my earlier post on Roberto Costantini’s The Deliverance of Evil (Quercus), which is the first in a trilogy. The post contains an extensive list of crime trilogies and quartets, such as David Peace’s astonishing ‘Red Riding Quartet’ (Serpent’s Tail), set in Yorkshire. Peace also wrote a novel called GB84 about the 1984 miners’ strikes. And that brings us to the BBC crime drama Sherwood, set in Nottinghamshire around 2014, in a community fractured by the strikes thirty years before…

This six-part series has just concluded, and I can highly recommend it for its wonderfully rich storylines, its historical and social insights, and its absolutely stellar cast, including David Morrissey, Robert Glenister and Lesley Manville. Writer James Graham grew up in the area, and fuses a genuine case (the murder of a man with a crossbow) with the history of the miners’ strikes and the ‘spycops’ scandals (an early example of how seeding discord into a community can ‘divide and conquer’ it for decades). It’s fast-paced, hard-hitting, twisty, and genuinely moving at times. Loved it.

#19 Maurizio de Giovanni / I Will Have Vengeance

Maurizio de Giovanni, I Will Have Vengeance: The Winter of Commissario Ricciardi, translated from Italian by Anne Milano Appel (Hersilia Press, 2012 [2007]). An intriguing debut novel featuring the mournful Commissario Ricciardi  4 stars

 Opening sentenceThe dead child was standing motionless at the intersection between Santa Teresa and the museum.   

I Will Have Vengeance: The Winter of Commissario Ricciardi was originally published in 2007 and is the first in a series featuring Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi, Commissario of Police with the Regia Questura di Napoli in 1930s Italy. The series has already been translated into French, Spanish and German, and its fourth installment (Il giorno dei morti / The Day of the Dead) won the prestigious Premio Camaiore in 2011.

Given its setting in the Naples of 1931, nine years into Mussolini’s rule, I expected this book to be an interesting but fairly conventional historical crime novel. From the opening line, however, it’s made clear that this text offers readers something different – an investigative figure able to see the dead and hear their last anguished utterances, which (in some cases) can be used to shed light on the manner and cause of their death.

Opting to employ this kind of narrative device is exceedingly risky and difficult to pull off. However, de Giovanni selects just the right style and tone to allow the reader to suspend disbelief, one that I found a little reminiscent of magical realist authors such as Isabel Allende:

“He saw the dead. Not all of them, and not for long: only those who had died violently, and only for a period of time that revealed extreme emotion, the sudden energy of their final thoughts. He saw them as though in a photograph that captured the moment their lives ended, one whose contours slowly faded until they disappeared” (p. 12).

Ricciardi’s daily exposure to the turbulent emotions of the dead leaves him an introverted, isolated and damaged individual, who is watched over by devoted family servant Rosa at home and by Brigadier Raffaele Maione at work. The original title of the novel, il senso del dolore (which can be translated as ‘a sense of sorrow’ / ‘a sense of pain’), could apply equally to the sorrow radiating from the departed and to its effect on Ricciardi. His is an interesting, nuanced character, imbued with an appealing stoicism when handling a ‘life sentence’ (p. 12) of receiving messages from the restless dead.

So can I Will Have Vengeance also be viewed as a historical crime novel? In many respects, yes. Mussolini’s fascist regime is mentioned very early on, and the social framework within which Ricciardi has to operate is visible throughout the text. For example, Ricciardi is shown musing on the regime’s attitude to crime, which supposedly does not exist within ordered fascist society: ‘No crime, only safety and well-being dictated by the regime. So it was ordained, by decree. Yet the dead kept vigil in the streets, in homes, demanding peace and justice’ (p.99). He is also shown having to manage a demanding superior, Vice Questore Garzo, who is loyal to the regime, albeit for personal gain rather than due to ideological conviction.

However, unlike other crime novels featuring investigators working within repressive regimes, such as Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther (Nazi Germany), Tim Robb Smith’s Leo Demidov and William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev (Stalin’s Russia), there is no sustained examination of the moral difficulties encountered by a policeman working in the service of the state and of the political dangers he might face. Ricciardi appears to be largely apolitical, is shielded by his record as an outstanding investigator, and does things ‘his way’ with relative ease when investigating the murder of renowned tenor Maestro Vezzi (a wonderfully drawn character, whose case will delight opera buffs). It will be interesting to see if this portrayal of Ricciardi remains the same in subsequent books within the series, or whether he is shown becoming embroiled in sticky political situations further down the line.

In sum: this is a very enjoyable read, which expertly fuses elements of the historical crime novel with a distinctive, other-worldly dimension, courtesy of its police investigator’s highly unusual abilities. I look forward to reading the other novels in the series soon.

The first chapter of the novel is available on the Hersilia Press website.

With thanks to Hersilia Press for providing me with a proof copy to review.

Mrs Peabody awards I Will Have Vengeance an entertaining, ghostly 4 stars.

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BBC4: Inspector Montalbano returns!

This Saturday, following the end of the excellent Danish political thriller Borgen, BBC4 returns to international crime in the shape of Andrea Camilleri’s The Snack Thief, starring Sicily’s Commissario Salvo Montalbano.

I’ve had my differences with the Camilleri novels in the past due to their rather dated representation of women (see my review of The Terracotta Dog), and have to confess that I haven’t got on particularly well with the TV adaptation either (is it just me or has some of the novels’ humour been lost?). But I know there are lots of fans out there who will be delighted to see Montalbano back on our screens in the form of actor Luca Zingaretti. This episode was the first to be made back in 1999, and has not yet been aired in the UK.

Montalbano (second from left) and his handsome team

If I had the chance, I would definitely sneak a peek at Camilleri’s Sicily, if only to escape our current cold-snap. But by the time the episode airs, I will be in an even chillier Berlin, where I’m lucky enough to be spending the week. Tschüss for now!

The Snack Thief airs on Saturday 11 February at 9pm.

UPDATE: Series 2 of Montalbano (12 episodes) will begin on BBC4 on Saturday 25 August 2012 at 9pm. See The Radio Times for further details. With thanks to Rhian for alerting me to this information 🙂

#15 Valerio Varesi / River of Shadows

Valerio Varesi, River of Shadows (Il fiume delle nebbie), translated from the Italian by Joseph Farrell (London: Maclehose Press 2011 [2003]). An atmospheric crime novel set against the backdrop of flooding in the Po Valley, and introducing Commissario Soneri  3.5 stars

 Opening sentence:  A steady downpour descended from the skies.

Given that Italy is currently in the headlines courtesy of Berlusconi’s imminent resignation, it seems fitting to review an Italian crime novel (I also happened upon an Inspector Zen novel in a charity shop today, so this week has become a bit of an Italian affair).

Valerio Varesi’s River of Shadows was shortlisted for the 2011 CWA International Dagger, and in most respects, is an enjoyable, quality read. The novel is set in the Po Valley of northern Italy, and offers a fascinating insight into the boatmen’s communities that work the Po river (if your knowledge of geography is as scanty as mine see here for further context; there’s also a helpful little map at the front of the book).

The novel has a tremendous sense of place, as its evocative cover suggests. The opening chapter describes the drama of the river’s rising floodwaters after four days of rain, and the strange disappearance of an experienced, but unpopular boatman named Anteo Tonna. When another man with the same surname falls from a window of the local hospital, Commissario Soneri is determined to establish a connection between the two, and the motivation for what he believes is a double murder. However, he soon comes up against the silence of the tightknit community of boatmen, led by the communist Barigazzi, who are unwilling to discuss their complex relationship with the missing man, one compromised by the murky politics of the fascist past.

I loved the atmospheric feel of this novel, the detail provided about life on the water, and the way the symbolism of the river was woven into the crime narrative (the rising floodwaters coincide with the violent deaths of the Tonnas, while the falling waters help to reveal the truth behind the case). Commissario Soneri is an astute and engaging investigative figure, and his interviews with various intriguing river dwellers, such as ‘Maria of the sands’, are nicely portrayed.

But there was one element of the novel I found highly irritating, namely the characterisation of Soneri’s girlfriend Angela, a one-dimensional, sex-mad fantasy figure who is averse to any kind of conventional commitment. Aside from being laughable, her presence undercuts the depiction of the otherwise professional Commissario. For example, I find it hard to believe that a policeman so committed to solving the case would consent to using a crime scene for an erotic rendevouz!

Readers of my previous posts will know that I’ve taken exception to the depiction of women in Italian crime fiction before (see my comments on Ingrid in Camilleri’s The Terracotta Dog). There does seem to be a pattern emerging, and I can’t help but wonder if these kinds of highly stereotyped representations of women are characteristic of Italian crime fiction in a way that they are not, say, for most Scandinavian crime novels. My impression is that male Italian crime writers tend to write for a male audience that expects its crime fiction to have an erotic dimension. However, in my view the latter doesn’t do the central crime narrative any favours (and I say this not out of primness, but because it’s so badly done!).

I will reserve judgement until I have read some further examples of Italian crime, and am actively on the lookout for a novel that proves my theory wrong. If anyone can point me in its direction I would be very grateful…

Mrs. Peabody awards River of Shadows an atmospheric 3.5 stars (one star deducted for its tedious representation of women).

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BBC4 starts repeat of Forbrydelsen / The Killing on Sunday 21 August 2011

For those of you who have yet to see Forbrydelsen, the original Danish production of The Killing, your moment has come! 

BBC4 starts repeating the series this Sunday at 10 o’clock. There are five two-hour episodes being shown per week (20 episodes in all), which promises to be a pretty intensive viewing experience, but if you haven’t yet sampled this superlative crime drama, I very much recommend that you do. It’s even quite a tempting prospect for those of us who caught the series the first time round…  

You can read my review of the first episodes here.

An added bonus: Sunday’s showing of The Killing is preceded at 9.00 by a repeat of Timeshift’s Nordic Noir – The Story of Scandinavian Crime Fiction.

For those of you into Italian crime drama, BBC4 is also repeating an Inspector Montalbano two-parter, Excursion to Tindari. It starts tonight, Saturday at 9pm. And there’s another chance to catch Timeshift’s Italian Noir – The Story of Italian Crime, on Tuesday at 11pm. Molto bene!

A bit of a treat: Belfast ‘States of Crime’ conference

Tomorrow I’m heading off to Belfast for a few days, and will pop my head round the door of the ‘States of Crime’ conference being held at Queen’s on Friday and Saturday. As its title suggests, the conference will be looking at representations of the state in crime fiction, and how it is shown negotiating issues such as criminality, policing, justice and civil rights. 

I’ve had a peek at the programme, and it’s stuffed with talks on international crime (Italian, French, German, Austrian, Swiss, Russian, Finnish, Swedish, African, Spanish, British, Irish, American). Heaven! 

The icing on the cake is a round table with David Peace and Eoin McNamee. Peace is a bit of a literary god in my eyes: I think his Red Riding Quartet is one of the best things ever written – irrespective of genre – and I’m really looking forward to seeing him in discussion at the No Alibis Bookstore on Friday evening. 

An odd case of Zen-o-phobia as BBC decides not to recommission TV series

I’ve just seen a post on the It’s a Crime (or a Mystery) blog reporting that the BBC has decided not to recommission the Aurelio Zen TV series. This really does seem to be a short-sighted move given its evident popularity. It seemed to grow on people over time as well – a slow burner that had the potential to turn into something significantly bigger. There’s still a chance that another channel will want to pick it up, but what a missed opportunity for the BBC, which has been showing such excellent taste lately with The Killing.  

How could anyone not want to recommission this stylish police investigator?!

For further details and links, see the post on It’s a Crime (or a Mystery). Lots of comments are being left there to encourage the BBC to reconsider. Do add your own if you feel moved to do so.

Ratking: Dibdin’s Zen vs BBC4’s TV adaptation

I’ve just finished reading the first of the Aurelio Zen novels by Michael Dibdin – Ratking – which was published in 1988. Like many new Zen readers, I bought the book after enjoying the BBC adaptations, but was also interested to see how the two compared, having heard that the TV episodes diverged somewhat from their source material.

I’d say that the TV adaptation of Ratking is loosely faithful to the novel, in the sense that both the reader and the viewer see Zen operating as a Venetian ‘outsider’ in a corrupt Italian policing system, and are aware of the dangers he faces should he make the wrong investigative/political move. But the Zen of the book is not the sharp-suited Italian of TV’s Rufus Sewell; nor is he shown negotiating with representatives from the higher echelons of government (he’s far too unimportant). And while the framework Ratking’s plot is taken up to some extent in the TV version, some aspects were significantly altered, like (ahem) the identity of the murderer.

I did, however, enjoy the novel exceedingly. Zen is nicely characterised, and the novel provides an intriguing insight into Italian society at the end of ‘the years of lead’ (a period of terrorism and kidnappings that lasted from the 1960s to the 1980s). It also provides a sharp critique of the power wielded by rich Italian families, and their immunity from the normal rules and regulations of society: sophisticated and cultured on the outside, but decadent and corrupt within. Well-written and entertaining, the novel only dipped slightly for me at the end, when the plot became a touch melodramatic. But it’s certainly worth a read, and I’m looking forward to sampling others from the series.

It’s interesting to compare the packaging of Ratking editions past and present: on the left, moody Italian cobbles, shadows and trilby-wearing detective; on the right, the star power of Rufus Sewell as Zen. With thanks to Peabody Jnr for technical assistance with the images.

BBC1’s Zen

I caught up yesterday on the first episode of BBC 1’s Zen, adapted from the Aurelio Zen crime novels of Michael Dibdin. I haven’t read the novels, and wasn’t particularly taken with the trailer for the programme, so had dragged my feet a bit, but when I finally tuned in, I was pleasantly surprised.

The first episode, ‘Vendetta’, immediately grabbed my attention with its sassy styling. The production seems to be channelling sleek 60s films like The Thomas Crown Affair through its camerawork, music and sharp-suited look.  Dark shades were much in evidence. The feel was very Italian, with lovely vistas of Rome and olive groves in the countryside, and a bleached Mediterranean light (or was that just my telly?). But it was all done with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humour and was tremendously fun.

ZEN (high res)

Rufus Sewell was excellent as Zen. From the comments I’m seeing elsewhere, his Aurelio is a little sleeker and more of a heartthrob than the one in the books, but the characterisation certainly played well with this 40ish female viewer. He’s a genuinely accomplished actor, and his chisled profile was shown off to good effect during his encounters with the alluring Tania (a hint of Michaelangelo’s David there?). There was a strong supporting cast too.

One interesting point: British and Italian actors mingle throughout, and it seems that everyone has been instructed to deliver their lines in their own accents (so we had Queen’s English, northern English, Italian and possibly Irish accents bundled in together). It was a bit odd at first, but somehow seemed to work OK. Better than everyone trying to fake an Italian delivery and getting it tragically wrong.

I watched Zen with my 15-year-old son, who said he would walk after 10 minutes if it was no good. He stayed for the duration, which is a compliment indeed. We both liked the multi-layered plot (until the end, when we got a trifle confused due to the long, drawn-out meaningful looks and cryptic exchanges between the characters, which were undoubtedly significant, but not always intelligible to us). 

We’ll be watching the second episode, ‘Cabal’, tonight  – so the makers of Zen are doing something very right. In particular, I look forward to seeing how Zen’s character navigates the increasingly tricky role of ‘honest cop’ in an Italian police force portrayed as inherently corrupt.

Both episodes of Zen are still available on iplayer.

If watching Zen has made you want to read Dibdin’s series, or other crime novels set in Italy, there’s a good list and overview here, on the Italian Mysteries blog.

Update: Just watched the third episode, ‘Ratking’, which I think was the best yet, especially in terms of snappy one liners:

Man: ‘I hear you’ve found a body?’

Zen: ‘Yes, they think it’s my career.’

All nicely set up for a series now: please BBC, we’d love to see more.