There are curious similarities in three Italian mystery series, written by Maurizio de Giovanni, Andrea Camilleri, and Donna Leon.1
They’re all police procedurals, and all set in Italy: Naples, Sicily, Venice.
The three protagonists are Commissarios: Luigi Ricciardi, Salvo Montalbano, and Guido Brunetti.
They all report to self-serving, social-climbing, ass-covering Questore buffoons: Angelo Garzo, Bonetti-Alderighi, and Patta
Each has a loyal, efficient, well-connected right-hand Sergente / Ispettore / Brigadier: Raffaele Maione, Giuseppe Fazio, Lorenzo Vianello.
And they all have testy, feisty relationships with their forensic pathologists: Doctors Modo, Pasquale, Rizzardi
But this is where most of those similarities end.
De Giovanni’s Commissario Ricciardi novels are set in 1931 Fascist Italy whereas the other two series are contemporary.
Ricciardi has a neighbor, a muse, who he doesn’t meet until the second book in the series. Montalbano has a girlfriend who appears frequently at the beginning of the series but then gets more and more distant as the series progresses. Brunetti has a relatively happy marriage although his boss’ secretary is a bit of distraction.
Quite a few of Leon’s victims end up floating in canals. Oh, I hate floaters.2 Most of Camilleri’s novels have two incidents or two separate crimes that appear to be unrelated, but come together somewhere along the plotline. And de Giovanni’s Ricciardi has visions, which is the main thing setting this series apart from the others.
Ricciardi sees the last few seconds of the lives of victims’ violent deaths. Many of them lurk in the shadows and aren’t connected to the investigations. A child who fell from a third-story balcony (Can I go down and play?), a man in a barbershop bleeding from a razor cut to the neck (By God, I didn’t touch your wife! ). Gushing blood—there’s a lot of gushing blood.
His visions are a blessing and a curse. The upside is that even though the words the victims speak are enigmatic, they aid in resolution of the crimes. The downside is, well, life sucks when you’re sidestepping grotesque images of dead people all day. His solace comes in the evening when he sits in his room, watching his neighbor across the courtyard doing embroidery.
The tricky, and frustrating, device that de Giovanni uses is mixing up his character’s narratives. Most of the time he identifies who’s speaking or pondering or doing bad things. Other times he doesn’t, which creates red herrings and sends you down dead ends.
I Will Have Vengeance involves the death of an opera tenor, and Blood Curse, the death of an elderly fortune-teller and moneylender. Neither perpetrator is obvious or stereotypical. Both books, yes, read them, but in order.
De Giovanni is a very talented writer. He keeps enough hidden, layers his writing deep enough that the twists and turns come naturally. The books are dark enough to work in Europa’s World Noir series, which thanks to a very aggressive marketing campaign, were on feature tables in most independent bookstores over the summer.
1 Donna Leon has lived in Venice for 25 years, so I’m just going to call her Italian. I’ve lived in Seattle for 25 years and I don’t call myself a Pennsylvanian.
2 A great line and timely line by Coroner Dominic DaVinci in DaVinci’s Inquest.
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .
Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .
Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .