Top Ten Mysteries Set in Italy
Ever since the time of Julius Caesar, Italy has had a certain tradition of conspiracy and enigmatic murders; until recently, however, the mystery genre was considered something foreign. Italian writers who devoted their creativity to this style were regarded with a degree of pity, and Italian readers only began consuming English- and French-language examples of the genre when the Giallo Mondadori series was launched in the 1930s. Indeed, even today, any novel that features a murder or investigation is defined as giallo (yellow, like the characteristic color of the Mondadori series book covers), and it took decades for the Italian giallo to gain a foothold. Let’s take a look at some of the genre’s milestones (aside from my books, needless to say).
- The Day of the Owl (1961) by Leonardo Sciascia. A small-business owner is murdered in Sicily and investigations by Carabinieri captain Bellodi unearth a world of submission and corruption. Among the memorable characters are Mafia boss Don Arena who divides humanity into five categories—men, half-men, pygmies, arse-crawlers, and quackers— according to their degree of courage and honor. To Sciascia, novelist, journalist, and poet, goes the credit for having written about the Mafia at a time when the government still denied its existence.
- The Name of the Rose (1980). Conceived by semiotician Umberto Eco as a diversion from his more serious work, the novel became his biggest success. Set in the 14th century, it follows investigations by the Franciscan friar William of Baskerville and his young scholar Adso into a series of murders that take place in a monastery in northern Italy. The solution revolves around the mythical second volume of Aristotle’s Poetics and complex philosophical issues.
- The Shape of Water (1994). Andrea Camilleri had an intrepid career as TV scriptwriter, but following retirement, he embraced a new life as a crime writer, or rather, the crime writer. Still today, more than one hundred novels later, he is by far Italy’s most cherished practitioner of the genre, thanks partly to his writing style, which blends refined Italian, Sicilian dialect, and irony. This is the book in which Camilleri creates Montalbano, the gruff police inspector of the fictional Sicilian town of Vigata, who is forced to investigate a murder that has taken place in a mànnara, an animal refuge. Montalbano is a character with whom one instantly falls in love, his one fault being to having inspired a stream of third-rate imitations.
- La verità dell’Alligatore (1995). Author Massimo Carlotto was the subject of a controversial legal case that resulted in a prison sentence for murder and then pardon by the president of Italy. His main character, Marco Buratti, alias The Alligator, suffered more or less the same fate and now muddles along as an unlicensed investigator. In this debut novel, The Alligator investigates a murder in the world of bourgeois Padova and uncovers a squalid web of prostitution, blackmail, and cocaine.
- Almost Blue (1996). Carlo Lucarelli chose not to become an historian, but rather, poured the knowledge gained in his history studies into a number of mystery novels set in the fascist period. However, his masterpiece is this thriller that takes its name from a Chet Baker song and is set in the present day. A serial killer named Iguana is terrorizing the city of Bologna. A policewoman sets out to track him down with the help of a blind man with a passion for nighttime sounds.
- Romanzo Criminale (2002) by Giancarlo De Cataldo. An unfortunate policeman sets out to catch a criminal gang inspired by the infamous Banda della Magliana, which, at the end of the seventies, terrorized Rome with kidnappings and murders and rendered dark favors for the secret services and neo-fascist groups. De Cataldo is one of the judges who was involved in the actual case, and he sure knows what he’s talking about.
- Dante Alighieri e i delitti della Medusa (2006) by Giulio Leoni. From Umberto Eco onward, historical crime novels became very common in Italy, but this one by Leoni features one of the most original investigators: Dante Alighieri, borrowed from the year 1300 when he served as one of the Priors of Florence. Here he investigates the murder and decapitation of a much-loved singer and uncovers a dark conspiracy.
- The Hunter of the Dark (2011) by criminologist Donato Carrisi. Who better to track down a serial killer than another serial killer? Bear this in mind as you follow the adventures of the penitenziere Marcus, a priest with amnesia who studies the most important crimes in history on behalf of a brotherhood investigating the influence of the Devil on earthly matters. In this case, evil shows its face in the form of a missing girl whose disappearance, it will be revealed, is just one of a much vaster chain of crimes.
- Black Run (2013) by Antonio Manzini. Deputy Police Chief Rocco Schiavone, with a passion for marijuana and a very personal concept of legality and justice, has been booted out of Rome and transferred to the freezing Aosta Valley. He attempts to learn who is responsible for killing a man and burying the body beneath a ski slope. Meanwhile, he contemplates how to steal a drug consignment for his own personal use.
- The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) by Dario Argento. It’s impossible to end this overview without mentioning a film that has shaped the history of the Italian thriller genre and influenced the film world globally. Sam, an Italian-American working in Rome, crosses paths with a serial killer who has already murdered three women. The mystery is solved thanks to a clue that the director puts under the nose of his audience in a scene that has caused many a nightmare. Nothing but inspiring—thank you, Maestro.
Sandrone Dazieri is the bestselling author of eight novels and more than fifty screenplays. Kill the Father, the first in a planned series featuring Colomba Caselli and Dante Torre, is his American debut.