Sunday, August 08, 2010

Crime, Italian style

I realize that Scandi crime is super-hot right now, what with Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy being a phenomenon and all — every day I see at least one person reading one of those books on the subway. It's so huge that it even made the cover of Entertainment Weekly, and when was the last time that mag had a book on the cover? I've seen quite a few "If you like Millennium, you'll like these Scandi noirs" sidebars too, and of course they're kinda funny. If you like Stieg Larsson's proto-feminist thrillers you'll like Henning Mankell's dry procedurals? These writers have little in common — it's like saying, If you like Mary Higging Clark, you'll like Patricia Highsmith, just because they're both American women writing thrillers. But then I myself enjoy both Larsson and Mankell so who am I to say?


I've been beating the drum for Scandi crime for a while (like here for instance), but I may now be officially tired of it. Okay, I know I've said this before (as in this 2007 entry) and I keep going back to the trough, but this time I mean it!

What to replace Scandi crime with though? Sticking to the geographical angle, Italy looks like my next goldmine. What makes Italian noir novels particularly interesting is that Italy itself is such a mess. In Scandinavia, there's a sense of a strong, ordered civil society, which makes violent transgressions particularly glaring. That, of course, is the appeal of noir books from northern countries.

But the borders are a lot more blurred in Italy — after all, this is a country where the underground, off-the-book economy is almost as big as the regular one. The criminal enterprises known as the Camorra, the Mafia or the 'Ndrangheta originated in Italy, not Sweden or Denmark.

I read several novels by Sicily's Leonardo Sciascia when I was in my twenties and thirties. NYRB Classics has published quiet a few of them, and I cannot recommend them enough. Sciascia wrote a lot about the impact of the Cosa Nostra on Sicilian society but in a kind of literary way. Don't look for hardboiled stuff or tight procedurals — it's no coincidence these books are often described as metaphysical crime. Sciascia is depressing because he shows how the Mafia thrives in a dysfunctional society and political system; in fact, how both sides of the legal divide feed on each other, need each other. To Each His Own and Equal Danger are particularly good novels, while The Moro Affair is an account of the killing of politician Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades in the 1970s.

Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano series is also set in Sicily but casts a much lighter look at that region. Camilleri's book are very funny — by contrast, I can't think of any Scandi procedural being funny.

Europa Editions
has put out a few good volumes too. I enjoyed Massimo Carlotto's The Goodbye Kiss, which was particularly brutal. Even better is Carlo Lucarelli, whose Commissario De Luca trilogy is a great read. The action is set immediately after WWII, when there was great confusion as to who the "good guys" were. The lead character was a police officer under Mussolini: Did that make him an active participant in fascism or was he just one of those obeying public servant who nevertheless kept the fascist state going? The power struggles between Communists and Christian Democrats in the post-war period are also quite fun to read about.

My latest discovery is Giorgio Scerbanenco, who was recommended at the used bookstore L'Amour du Noir in Paris. The book the owner picked for me as an entry point is Les Enfants du massacre (1968), even though it's the third in the Duca Lamberti series. Wow! Scerbanenco set his books in Milan and reading about that city as it was in the 1960s is bracing. Scerbanenco's most famous creation is Lamberti, a doctor who does time for euthanasia then starts working for the police since he can't practice medicine anymore. The level of amoral brutality in Les Enfants du massacre is staggering, especially since the ones performing it are teenagers, and young ones at that. Of course Scerbanenco betrays some hang-ups of his time, notably in the way he refers to an "inverted" boy not being a "real man" (a lesbian secondary character doesn't do much better). But I find it hard to let this bother me since the worldview is so jaundiced towards everybody.

Scerbanenco has been compared to Simenon, and I can see why. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to be easily available in English. Perhaps NYRB Classics — my favorite American publisher — will rise to the challenge?


isaac butler said...

Have you read Philip Kerr's "Berlin Noir" trilogy? He's british, not of the continent, but my wife is alternating between Kerr, Mankell and Mosely books and loving it. I've only read the Kerr and a Mosely or two (okay, and I read one Mankell, the dogs of riga, which I enjoyed).

Which reminds me... have you read Walter Mosely? Or Don Carpenter? or George Pelicanos? Those are three american s you might want to check out.

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

I've read Moseley (meh) and Pelecanos (yay), but not Don Carpenter. You're the third person to recommend Berlin Noir so clearly I have to get to it!

Mankell has been all about diminishing returns for me lately so I've kind of given up on him.

isaac butler said...

Really? Mosely is a "meh" to you? Discuss, I'm interested!

And NYRB really is the best publishing arm ever. You've read their Simenon reissues, right?

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

I did enjoy Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress but for some reason I can't quite explain I didn't feel the urge to read more. I also reviewed Diablerie for The LA Times a few years ago, and it was so horrible that I found it hard to explore his work more. I realize this is unfair.

I read several of the Simenon books that NYRB put out. My fave is Dirty Snow, which is one of the grimmest things I've ever read, period.