Introduction: Place and Culture in Italian Crime Fiction


Barbara Pezzotti

Australasian Centre for Italian Studies (ACIS)

Brigid Maher

La Trobe University


Crime fiction is a very popular genre in Italy and has become a means of representing national and regional cultures and traditions as well as reflecting the changes in the social fabric in the last few decades. Although the genre has been at the frontline in tackling everyday problems and conflicts, for a long time critics have dismissed crime fiction writers’ efforts to investigate Italian society, and have labelled the giallo escapist literature.[1] Only recently has it become object of lively scholarship[2] and readers from all over the world have learnt how to appreciate a crime story set in Italy and written by Italian authors. Indeed, while many readers still enjoy exploring Italy and its cultures through the lens of foreign authors, such as Michael Dibdin or Donna Leon (see Maher 2013), insider perspective on Italy’s society and its problems is becoming increasingly popular.

In Italy the genre developed late compared to other European countries, such as Great Britain and France, where the growth of capitalism and big cities supported the birth of the genre. Emilio De Marchi’s Il cappello del prete [The Priest’s Hat] (1887) set in Naples, is commonly recognised as the first Italian crime novel, but the genre only started to flourish in the 1930s, thanks to a Fascist law that reserved at least 20 percent of any series of books for Italian writers (Pistelli 2006, p. 106).

Ironically, in an attempt to restrict what it referred to as an “excessive” quantity of translations circulating in Italy, Rome ended up promoting a genre that the Fascist regime, and Mussolini in primis, despised because it supposedly had a bad influence on youth and damaged the nation’s morale. After unintentionally supporting Italian crime fiction, the Fascist regime soon tried to contain its artistic freedom. First it imposed rules that the culprit in any story set in Italy should be a foreigner; then any reference to suicide was banned; subsequently all crime fiction set in Italy was forbidden. Finally on 1 June 1943 Rome gave orders that all crime novels should be confiscated and crime fiction was banned forthwith.

After the war foreign authors whose works were readily available in Italian translation dominated the market for a long time. It was only after the publication of Giorgio Scerbanenco’s and Leonardo Sciascia’s crime stories in the 1960s, the international success of Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini in the 1970s and especially Umberto Eco’s bestseller Il nome della rosa (translated as The Name of the Rose in 1983) that the Italian giallo became both successful in Italy and acclaimed worldwide. A real renaissance in Italian crime fiction occurred in the 1990s when several Italian writers emerged and became nationally and internationally famous.[3] One of these was Andrea Camilleri (b. 1925) whose ongoing Inspector Montalbano series accounted for more than 120 translations into a range of languages by 2002 and 20 million books sold worldwide (Novelli 2008, p. 89). Today Camilleri is still the most famous Italian writer in the world, thanks also to the popular TV series inspired by his books. Also internationally renowned are Carlo Lucarelli (b. 1960), Massimo Carlotto (b.1956) and Giancarlo De Cataldo (b. 1956), whose books have been translated into several languages, including English. 

As human geographers have long since discovered, literature is a powerful instrument to detect and visualise national and regional characteristics that would otherwise be hard to define (Lando 1993, p. 5). “Regional” and “local” are notions that are especially important to an understanding of the nature of Italy. The polycentric history of the Italian peninsula, divided for a long time into several states ruled by foreign powers and united only in the 1860s, spurred the flourishing of regional dialects and traditions, and the creation of a polycentric literature (Dionisotti 1967). Because of its special relationship with the physical space in which it is set, Italian crime fiction has traditionally exalted the regional and local specificity of Italy (Pezzotti 2012). This is particularly the case with Camilleri’s crime series set in Sicily, where the protagonist, Inspector Salvo Montalbano, enjoys swimming in the sea and eating local delicacies, and categorically refuses to be transferred elsewhere in Italy. Apart from Sciascia and Camilleri, whose novels are set in fictional or unnamed villages in Sicily, traditionally Italian crime fiction is set in big cities, mainly in the north of the peninsula. For a long time cities such as Turin, Milan and Bologna have provided the setting for entertaining and exciting crime stories while also offering an investigation into Italian society.

However, many critics still deny Italian crime fiction such an important epistemological and social function, and recognise the social and political commitment of novels only once they have been stripped of their status as crime stories. The reason for this attitude is deeply rooted in Italy’s recent history and culture. As Pierpaolo Antonello and Florian Mussgnug explain, social and political commitment or impegno[4] in the Italian context is normally associated with a specific historical period (from the late 1940s to the late 1960s) in which “cultural and political actors converged on a communal project based on strict ideological premises and tied to emancipatory and potentially revolutionary action” (Antonello and Mussgnug 2000, p. 9). In other words, only intellectuals belonging to or affiliated with the Italian Communist Party have been traditionally considered politically engaged.[5] Indeed, for many post-war scholars, impegno was inseparable from the idea of political hegemony: as organic intellectuals in the Gramscian sense, the engaged writer or filmmaker had to shape collective consciousness and co-opt individuals into a communal project for global transformation and revolutionary change.[6] Consequently, there has been a sustained tendency to associate impegno with figures such as Pier Paolo Pasolini or Jean Paul Sartre, ignoring writers or intellectuals who worked outside the Communist Party’s ideological umbrella.[7] Moreover, as Antonello and Mussgnug explain “Italian impegno has been characterized by an Adornian mistrust of the culture industry and by a more or less explicitly elitist stance, which expressed itself – even in leftist quarters – in an open refusal of mass culture” (Antonello and Mussgnug 2009, p. 15). From here, came the need to strip the label “crime fiction” from novels written by writers who were considered canonical authors. Indeed, in Italy the Gramscian intellectuals dismissed popular culture which, according to Gramsci himself, could in fact be a powerful meeting ground for intellectuals and the masses (Gramsci 1948-1951, pp. 697-699).

Only recently have critics started to question the concept of impegno in the Italian context. By rejecting the sovereign autonomous individual, and emphasising the anarchic, collective and anonymous experience, postmodernism has contributed to overcoming the distinction between genres and rejecting any difference between high and low or popular cultures. By defeating what Andreas Huyssen called the “Great Divide” (1986), postmodernism has also helped to go beyond the definition of impegno as a singular and historical force in Italian culture. As Jennifer Burns puts it, “the monolithic notion of commitment to a usually communist agenda in writing began in the 1950s to reveal a crack of dissension, and the long-term effect of this is a break-up of the commitment to a single, overarching social agenda into a fragmentary attention to specific issues” (2001, p. i). In order to take into account a more complex meaning for the term impegno, Antonello and Mussgnug coined the expression “postmodern impegno” which is an alternative variant of commitment (p. 11).[8] “Moral rebellion” (Pezzotti 2014) is another way to depict social and political criticism in crime fiction, against any restrictive ideological brace.

In representing the still-fragmented nature of contemporary Italian society, and by reflecting its various problems, crime fiction has also provided a model of investigative fiction that is not only a racconto (tale), but also a messaggio (message) (Petronio 2000, p. 118). Both in its “whodunit” and in the hard-boiled versions, the giallo has addressed important topics such as unfettered industrialisation and pollution, political corruption, organised crime, racism and discrimination. If nothing else, as Massimo Carloni argues, one of the peculiarities of contemporary Italian crime fiction is the fact that it has come to fill a perceived void, covering an area of fiction in the realist tradition that grew progressively narrower in the 1960s and 1970s, that is, in a period characterised by the triumph among the critics of experimental fiction (Carloni 1994, p. 162).[9]

After the incredibly successful wave of the 1990s, paraphrasing Lewis D. Moore, Italian crime fiction has created more and more “occupied spaces”, that is novels set in smaller, provincial towns, such as is the case with Gianrico Carofiglio’s legal thrillers set in Bari and Valerio Varesi’s detective stories set in Parma and along the Po Valley. However, the allure of the more urban and cosmopolitan settings is still strong in the genre and some new authors, such as Roberto Costantini and Marilù Oliva, have again walked the mean streets of Rome and Bologna respectively, giving a new interpretation of the urban environment.

This special issue of The Australian Journal of Crime Fiction investigates the traditional role of the giallo in representing local customs and cultures, and also explores the way the most recent crime fiction has been able to reflect the evolution of Italian society. Emilio Lomonaco’s study examines Andrea Camilleri’s very popular series featuring Inspector Montalbano. While these books are well-loved all over the world, many readers of the Italian originals delight particularly in Camilleri’s unique writing style, which is marked by frequent incursions of Sicilian dialect, a feature that is not always present in translations into other languages. Lomonaco shows how Camilleri’s style, which is central to his depiction of Sicilian characters and Sicilian life, harks back to the island’s centuries-long tradition of oral storytelling.

Piera Carroli’s contribution takes us to the north of the country, and more specifically to Bologna. Long favoured as a setting for Italian noir, Bologna is depicted in a rather new light by author Marilù Oliva, as a multilingual, transcultural city, with a vibrant Latin American population. Oliva’s novels are linguistically innovative and engage, as so much Italian crime fiction does, in a critique of important social issues, including working conditions, immigration and violence against women. This impegno combines with an eclectic mix of other topics including mythology, forensic investigation and the history of salsa music and dance.

Another Italian exponent of the genre, Roberto Costantini, is brought into dialogue with antipodean writing in Margie Michael’s comparative article, which explores notions of place and placelessness in Costantini’s writing and in that of New Zealand author Paul Cleave. Costantini’s depiction of Rome is detailed and verifiable, with reference to buildings, streets and districts that would be known to many readers, while Cleave’s Christchurch, in contrast, is almost unreal, dark and gloomy but without recognisable geographical landmarks. What the novels share, Michael observes, is the sense of placelessness, of not belonging, that pervades the lives of the survivors of the crimes detailed in these books.

An author’s perspective comes to us in the form of an interview between crime fiction scholar Giuliana Pieri and the much-loved Andrea Camilleri. This interview is available in English for the first time here, in a fine translation by Canberra-based translator Jennifer Stockwell. Camilleri provides insights into the nature of European crime fiction and how it differs from English-language varieties, and explores the long history of the genre, whose roots he finds in certain tales of the Bible and ancient Greek times.

The final section of our special issue is dedicated to the experience of Italian crime fiction in translation. Indeed, were it not for the considerable popularity of Italian crime fiction in English, the present collection of articles would, perhaps, be unlikely to appear in an Australian journal at all. Fortunately, in recent years a number of Italian crime writers have developed a considerable following in the English-speaking world, along with authors from Europe, Latin America and Asia. While Anglophone publishers are known for a certain resistance to translation, small and medium-sized publishing houses like Europa Editions, Bitter Lemon Press, Abacus and Maclehose, among others, are dedicating considerable resources to making high-quality Italian and other crime fiction available in English translation (Maher 2016). This is important not only for the new works and perspectives it brings into the reading lives of speakers of English, but also, in turn, because of the innovative interpretations that this new readership can bring to the works. A case in point is the analysis by Alistair Rolls of Camilleri’s novel The Shape of Water. Approaching the novel from the perspective of a reader who does not have access to the Italian original but instead brings a background in French philosophy and cultural studies, Rolls explores The Shape of Water in translation and through the prism of translatability, and is able to shed new light on questions of language and communication in the novel, the first in the perennially popular Montalbano series.

In the interests of giving Anglophone readers a taste of just one of the many as-yet-untranslated works of Italian crime writing out there, we end this section, and our special issue, with a translation into English of the first two chapters of Alessia Gazzola’s crime novel L’allieva, whose title, literally translated, means The (Female) Student. The eponymous student is – in an untranslatable pun – the hapless Alice Allevi, who is attempting to qualify as a forensic pathologist but is in real danger of having to repeat the year due to her failure to focus on her work and make a suitable impression on her superiors. When the team is called to the scene of a possible crime – a beautiful young woman has been found dead – Alice realises to her astonishment that she briefly met the victim just days earlier in a fitting room as she was trying on a new dress. This happenstance, which may finally provide Alice with a chance to shine professionally, is emblematic of the novel’s unusual fusion of genres – it is a forensic crime novel with many traces of the genre often referred to (somewhat disparagingly, it has to be said) as “chick lit”. In light of this genre pairing, the translation is titled “Forensics and Fashionability”. The young protagonist is preoccupied at once with toxicology results and designer handbags, with career advancement (or lack thereof) and progress on the romantic front, as she fields the disarming advances and inexplicable retreats of the two eligible bachelors in her life: her workplace superior Claudio and the globetrotting travel writer Arthur. Hybridity and genre fusion are becoming increasingly common in Italian gialli (see Pezzotti and Maher 2016), and we hope that this tantalising morsel will inspire readers to seek out more Italian crime fiction.



Antonello, P & Mussgnug, F (eds) 2009, Postmodern Impegno: Ethics and Commitment in Contemporary Italian Culture, Peter Lang, Bern.

Burns, J 2001, Fragments of Impegno: Interpretations of Commitment in Contemporary Italian Narrative 1980-2000, Northern Universities Press, Leeds.

Cannon, J. 2006, The Novel as Investigation: Leonardo Sciascia, Dacia Maraini, and Antonio Tabucchi, Toronto University Press, Toronto.

Carloni, M 1994, L’Italia in giallo. Geografia e storia del giallo italiano contemporaneo, Edizioni Diabasis, Reggio Emilia.

De Marchi, E 1959, Il cappello del prete (1887). In Giansiro Ferrata (ed.), Tutte le opere di Emilio De Marchi, vol. I, Mondadori, Milan.

Dionisotti, C 1967, Geografia e storia della letteratura italiana, Piccola Biblioteca Einaudi, Turin.

Eco, U 1979, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts, Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

----. 1980, Il nome della rosa, Bompiani, Milan. Translated by William Weaver as 1983, The Name of the Rose, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York. 

Gramsci, A 1975, Quaderni dal carcere 1948-1951, Einaudi, Turin.

Huyssen, A 1986, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Lando, F 1996, ‘Fact and Fiction: Geography and Literature’, GeoJournal, no 38, pp. 3-18.

La Porta, F 2006, ‘Contro il Nuovo Giallo Italiano (e se avessimo trovato il genere a noi congeniale?’, in  A Berardinelli & G Ferroni (eds), Sul banco dei cattivi. A proposito di Baricco e di altri scrittori alla moda, Donzelli editore, Rome, pp. 55-75.

Maher, B 2013, ‘A Crook’s Tour: Translation, Pseudotranslation and Foreignness in Anglo-Italian Crime Fiction, in B Nelson & B Maher (eds), Perspectives on Literature and Translation: Creation, Circulation, Reception, Routledge, New York, pp. 145-158.

Maher, B 2016, ‘“La Dolce Vita” Meets “the Nature of Evil”: The Paratextual Positioning of Italian Crime Fiction in English Translation’, The Translator, vol 22, no 2, in press.

Moore, LD 2006, Cracking the Hard-Boiled Detective: A Critical History from 1920s to the Present, McFarland, Jefferson, NC.

Novelli, M 2008, ‘Le vie nuove di Andrea Camilleri’, in R Carnero & G Ladolfi (eds), Gli spazi della letteratura, Interlinea, Novara, pp. 89-94.

Petronio, G 2000, Sulle tracce del giallo, Gamberetti, Rome.

Pezzotti, B 2012, The Importance of Place in Contemporary Italian Crime Fiction: A Bloody Journey, FDU Press / Rowman & Littlefield, Madison.

Pezzotti, B 2014, Politics and Society in Italian Crime Fiction: An Historical Overview, McFarland, Jefferson, NC.

Pezzotti, B & Maher B In press 2016, Special issue of Quaderni d’italianistica on ‘Hybridity in Giallo’.

Pistelli, M 2003, Un secolo in giallo. Storia del poliziesco italiano, Donzelli, Rome.

Pyrhönen, H 1994, Murder from an Academic Angle: An Introduction to the Study of the Detective Narrative, Camden House, Columbia, SC.

Todorov, T 1977, ‘The Typology of Detective Fiction’, in The Poetics of Prose, Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 42-52.



[1] Giallo (pl. gialli) is the term commonly used to define crime fiction in Italy. It means “yellow”, the colour of the covers of one of the country’s first crime fiction series launched in 1929 by the publisher Mondadori. In this special issue we use the term giallo in its widest meaning – that is to say, a story where there is a crime and an investigation takes place – as commonly accepted by authoritative scholars, such as Petronio (2000).

[2] For Todorov “detective fiction has its norms; to ‘develop’ them is also to disappoint them; to ‘improve upon’ detective fiction is to write ‘literature’, not detective fiction” (1977, p. 43). According to Eco a lack of social innovation in crime fiction resulted in a repetition of formulae, schemes and conventional expressions (1979, pp. 114-72). This misconception is still widespread even though the history of crime fiction demonstrates that the genre has always been incredibly resistant to any rules imposed upon it. See Pyrhönen (1994, p. 20).

[3] The perception of a renaissance in crime fiction is supported by recent data. According to Istat, Italy’s National Institute of Statistics, the print run of “romanzi gialli e di avventura” (crime and adventure novels) increased from 15.6 million in 1996 to 21.8 million in 2001. In the meantime “romanzi e racconti” (novels and short stories, a category that excludes crime fiction) decreased from 62.4 million in 1996 to 38.4 million in 2001. (Figures from, accessed 23 September 2009.) Moreover, according to Filippo La Porta, from 1994 to 2003 the sales of crime fiction grew by 450%, while Italian crime fiction increased from 7% to 24% of the total of titles published (2006, pp. 58-59).

[4] The word “commitment” in English has strong relational and passional connotations and is attached more to the private than to the public sphere. By contrast, the equivalent in Italian – that is, impegno – is often used to mean the strong relationship between the individual and their society. According to Antonello and Mussgnug, postmodern impegno implies a “thick relationship, in which the individual establishes, first of all, an engagement with the ‘other’ (lower case), meaning the ‘neighbour’, rather than the ‘collective’, or hypostasized, phantasmatic ‘Other’, in Lacanian or Levinasian terms” (2000, p. 11).

[5] The Italian Communist Party (Partito Comunista Italiano, or PCI) was founded as the Communist Party of Italy on 21 January 1921 in Livorno, by seceding from the Italian Socialist Party (PSI). Outlawed during the Fascist regime, the party played a major part in the Italian Resistance movement. It changed its name in 1943 and became the strongest political party of the Italian left after the Second World War, attracting the support of about a third of the voters during the 1970s. At the time it was the biggest communist party in the West (2.3 million members in 1947 and 34.4% of the vote in 1976). In 1991 the PCI was disbanded and replaced by the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), which was accepted in both the Socialist International and the Party of European Socialists. The more radical members of the party left to form the Communist Refoundation Party.

[6] Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was an Italian writer, politician, political theorist and linguist. He was a founding member and leader of the Communist Party of Italy and one of the most important Marxist thinkers of the twentieth century. His writings are greatly concerned with the analysis of culture and political leadership. He is renowned for his concept of cultural hegemony as a means of maintaining the state in a capitalist society.

[7] Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975) was an Italian film director, poet, writer and intellectual. On 26 January 1947 he wrote a declaration for the front page of the newspaper Libertà: “In our opinion, we think that currently only Communism is able to provide a new culture”. While his work remains controversial to this day, in the years since his death Pasolini has come to be internationally valued as a visionary thinker and a major figure in Italian literature and art. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was a French existentialist philosopher, playwright, novelist, screenwriter, political activist, biographer, and literary critic. He was one of the key figures in the philosophy of existentialism, and one of the leading figures in twentieth century French philosophy and Marxism.

[8] Drawing from Lawrence Bruell’s theory, JoAnn Cannon prefers to use the term “ethical commitment”, at least for the social engagement shown in the novels of Leonardo Sciascia, Dacia Maraini and Antonio Tabucchi (Cannon 2006, p. 110).

[9] In particular, the neoavanguardia (New Vanguard) was an avant-garde Italian literary movement, characterised by a strong push towards formal experimentation in language. Neoavanguardia poets, inspired by modernist English-language writers such as Ezra Pound and TS Eliot, were opposed to the crepuscolarismo (intimistic view) which had characterised Italian poetry in the twentieth century and, above all, to what they defined as “neo-capitalistic” language. The result was quasi-parodistic language that often led to meaningless verses and what was known as “art as a plaything in itself”. The movement originated as the Gruppo 63, which was founded mostly by writers who had collaborated with the Il Verri literary magazine.


Barbara Pezzotti (PhD Victoria University of Wellington) is an Honorary Research Associate of the Australasian Centre for Italian Studies (ACIS). She is the author of The Importance of Place in Contemporary Italian Crime Fiction: A Bloody Journey (2012) and Politics and Society in Italian Crime Fiction: An Historical Overview (2014). Her monograph Investigating Italy’s Past through Crime Fiction, Films and TV Series: Murder in the Age of Chaos will be published by Palgrave McMillan in 2016.

Brigid Maher is Senior Lecturer in Italian Studies at La Trobe University. Her research focuses largely on literary translation and contemporary Italian literature, including crime fiction. Her English translations of novels by Nicola Lagioia and Milena Agus have been published in Italy, Australia and the UK.


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The Australian Journal of Crime Fiction
Vol 2 No 1 2016
Editors: Barbara Pezzotti and Brigid Maher