What is crime fiction? An interview with Andrea Camilleri[*]
Royal Holloway University of London
translated by Jennifer Stockwell
Australian National University
What was behind your choice of the crime fiction genre for your first novel, Il corso delle cose [The Way Things Go] (1978)? Was it influenced by your earlier career in television and the theatre?
My screenwriting experience was very helpful, my time as a television producer even more so. With the Italian broadcaster RAI, I produced the hugely successful television series, Maigret, based on the novels by Georges Simenon. Diego Fabbri, a great Italian playwright, was the screenwriter. Fabbri took Simenon’s novel and literally dismantled it, tearing out pages and rearranging them. Then he reordered the storyline, making additions, until it was in a format suitable for television. By watching him closely, I came to understand the mechanics of the European crime novel, Simenon style.
So in your opinion, what are those mechanics, the driving forces that set European crime fiction apart from the English language tradition?
One example is that, unlike in the novels of Edgar Wallace or Agatha Christie, the dramatic twist, the dénouement, never comes at the end. It comes before that, as if the ending is a foregone conclusion. In reality, everything is already said and done. Therefore, whereas in ninety-nine per cent of English-language crime novels, the discovery of the culprit also leads to his punishment, in the novels of Friedrich Dürrenmatt or of Simenon the explanation of events is not linked to the discovery of the culprit. Truth and justice do not always coincide.
This is a message that is very dear to you, and it has a whole range of correlations, particularly with the Sicilian condition. Because of course, Sicily is the major theme of your work.
It is, I wouldn’t know how to write about anything else. When I wrote my first novel, many years ago, I added a dedication which I called “placing Sicily at the forefront”, but I actually put that dedication at the end of the book! In it, I explained that it would have been wonderful for a storyteller like myself to set a novel in New York. Since travel guides are getting better and better, so good that you can even work out the exact location of the local corner shop, I could have set it there just by consulting the guide. Except that I don’t know a thing about the men who walk those streets, who visit that corner shop. I would have to take a wild guess, imposing a foreign thought system and a psychology, onto them, that are not my own. On the other hand, I am wrong about ninety-nine per cent of the people who walk my own streets, even when I think I understand them. But that remaining one per cent is all I need to write a story.
That connection to the character’s psychology is so important. This is another feature of European crime fiction, unlike the English-language genre which favours the storyline, the plot.
In one of his Prison Notebooks, Letteratura e vita nazionale [Literature and Nationalism], Antonio Gramsci wrote a short chapter called “On the detective novel”, in which he makes a very astute observation. He says that there is some crime fiction that favours the plot above all else, and that to do so is risky, but that not all crime fiction, not even the English-language tradition, is like that. He cites G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown as an example of sophisticated crime fiction. Father Brown is a priest, so he is a great connoisseur, not of material things, but of souls, and Gramsci concludes that this is a real advantage in a crime novel. Of course, writers like Raymond Chandler are literary giants, and their use of the crime genre is almost incidental, it’s irrelevant. Then, with crime writers such as Agatha Christie, the plot comes first. With the Europeans, like Dürrenmatt or Simenon, there is a plot but it is not especially important. What fascinates me about Simenon, for example, is that you immediately put yourself in the place of the victim, that is, you try to look through the dead person’s eyes to find out who could have killed them. This is classic Maigret. What I don’t like about Simenon’s work is the stagnation of the protagonist. From the first book, written in 1927, to the last, which was written in 1960, he does not seem to age or to change his thinking. This is such an inherent risk in a crime fiction series that Agatha Christie, for example, changed her protagonist, moving on from Miss Marple to Hercule Poirot. This gave her a myriad of options. My own Inspector Montalbano evolves from one investigation to the next.
Your writing encompasses a range of genres: classic novels and detective stories (the Inspector Montalbano series), historical novels set in nineteenth-century Sicily, historical writings such as La bolla di componenda [The Agreement] (1993) and La strage dimenticata [The Forgotten Massacre] (1984) and finally a small volume on Sicilian proverbs, Il gioco della mosca [The Fly Game] (1995). Do you take a different approach when writing crime fiction as opposed to historical novels?
In historical novels such as Un filo di fumo [A Wisp of Smoke] (1980) or Hunting Season: A Novel (1992) I have always started from a nucleus of historical truth, a real-world event. I absolutely must have this input as a starting point. I begin from the event that has most piqued my interest and I start to write about that. Then, through concentric circles, and looping back around, the whole thing is created and I write the novel around it. Of course this original “eye of the storm” won’t necessarily still be central to the novel by the time it is finished, it may move, but it’s the growth shoot, the central seed. It’s an anarchic way of writing, or at least that’s the way I used to view it. So, I asked myself a question. Was I capable of writing a novel from A to Z, from the first to last chapter, methodically? And quite coolly, I said to myself that maybe the only way to do it was to write a crime novel, which would restrict me like a cage.
You mean a novel that does require a beginning and an end?
Yes, where events must unfold in a logical order. Leonardo Sciascia wrote that the crime novel is the most honest novel in existence, because there is little opportunity to cheat. That’s why I wrote my first crime novel, The Shape of Water in 1994. More through a sort of narrative discipline and self-experimentation than through any desire to write a crime novel.
But the crime novel structure also seems to permeate your novels set in nineteenth-century Sicily and your historical writings such as La Bolla di componenda. Do you think historical research can be approached as a criminal investigation?
There’s no doubt that it is an investigation, an absolutely fascinating one. Actually, La Bolla di componenda is a crime novel, an investigation. One day, Leonardo Sciascia said something wonderful to me: “My dear Camilleri, in reality, writers like us are all cops at heart”. How true that is.
Crime fiction as a literary genre is still significantly undervalued and considered mass-market literature. Do you see this as a misinterpretation, not just on a European level but especially in Italy, where distinguished writers such as Carlo Emilio Gadda showed such a great interest in the detective novel?
Of course that’s what it is. “Crime fiction with literature inside”, is what our friend Gramsci called it, again quoting Chesterton. In That Awful Mess on Via Merulana (1957), Gadda actually breaks the rules of crime fiction. The recurring structure of the crime novel is murder, in all its possible forms – in a room, outside a room, in a crowd, with a varying number of murderers – but it is always fundamentally an inhumane act for which we must discover the human reasons.
And so we begin to search for what lies beneath human nature?
Of course. As a writer, you can decide how explicit you are about it, but basically there’s always the detective work followed by the solution. Gadda writes everything but the solution. What a masterstroke! As a reader, you still manage to absorb it, it doesn’t leave you frustrated. The focus on the final “detection” is in some ways a flaw of the standard crime novel. A good crime fiction reader, and I include myself here, does not attempt to take the place of the investigator. If by chance the solution becomes clear to him, he must put it to one side, he must let himself be led by the investigator.
The prejudice of so much Italian literary criticism towards the crime fiction genre is one of the inherent problems in the very strict divide that existed, and perhaps still does exist, between classic and popular fiction. What do you think causes the misrepresentation of crime fiction as “non-literary”?
The first four crime novels that were published in Italy in 1930, known as “gialli” because of publisher Mondadori’s distinctive yellow covers, were an extremely sophisticated S.S. Van Dine, The Canary Murder Case (1927), a crime fiction classic; the second was by Edgar Allan Poe; the third was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the fourth was by Belgian author Stanislas-Andre Steeman, who at the time was a crime writer. That is where the misunderstanding began, it was with those first four issues of the Mondadori crime weekly.
Now that idea is perhaps being superseded.
Yes, things are moving on. Today for instance we have crime writers like Carlo Lucarelli, or Marcello Fois who wrote a wonderful book, The Advocate (1998) a murder mystery set in deepest, darkest Sardinia. The distinction is blurring. Crime fiction had always been considered a mass-market genre. In an Italy where the “anti-narrative” of the thirties and forties was part of the fabric of life, crime fiction, which was all about the narrative, was out of fashion. In Italy at the time, the best writer was that great man Emilio Cecchi, with his excellent Italian. But Corrado Alvaro, who was a storyteller, must have been working hard too, and Riccardo Bacchelli was annoying everyone by being such a prolific and accomplished storyteller. Now we are rediscovering the joy of a good story. I am pleased that the crime fiction genre is seeing this success, because it has rigour, it exercises the mind.
In your novel The Voice of the Violin, a conversation between Inspector Montalbano and the young woman Clementina links the crime genre with the story of Oedipus, making it a sort of archetypal crime novel. So not only is historical research like an investigation, but the mystery of life itself can be explored by using the crime novel structure.
Of course it can. But this business of the investigation is to some extent borrowed from Leonardo Sciascia, who says,
Let’s take the book on the eternal nature of mystery and investigation, the book of the prophet Daniel in the Bible, which is read in English-speaking countries, and which is probably, paradoxically even, the reason that the crime novel originated there. What happens to the virtuous woman Susanna? Susanna is virtuous and married with children. A pair of old judges are lusting after her, and since they cannot have her, they decide to take their vile revenge. They say, “We saw her under a tree lying with a young man.” No one can question the word of two judges. Young Daniel says, “I am innocent of the blood of this woman!” He interrogates the two old blokes separately, asking them “Under which tree did you see them?” – excellent question – and one says “an elm” and the other says “an oak”. This conflict between the two interrogations leads to the truth. It’s the first example of the crime genre. The story of the Priests of Bel too: Daniel reveals the deception to Ciro. How? By placing the ash on the floor and saying, “See? Those are footprints. A god does not leave footprints.”
Sciascia used to say that this was the first example of crime fiction. The police investigation is in there, everything is there.
What about the moral of the Oedipus story, that anyone who knowingly commits a crime will punish himself, does this exist in crime fiction?
This sometimes happens in crime novels, it’s that final gunshot. You can find it in The Voice of the Violin.
Is it once again a fundamental misunderstanding to consider the crime genre as a lightweight popular narrative form, while what you seem to show, with irony and without intellectualising it, is that the crime novel can be a vehicle for contemplating the meaning of life, the big moral questions, good and evil, as Montalbano does? It’s almost as if you want to trick the reader into confronting deeper issues where they wouldn’t expect to find them.
You always have to play tricks! You always have to sneak these things in. I don’t like confessional, or correctional, literature. There is a way to broach the serious issues, and a master of that was Jonathan Swift. For example, the fact that Gulliver’s Travels is a children’s book was a perfect way to disguise the book’s importance. We writers distil the essence; remove the boring parts, and it becomes the tale of the little men.
[*] This interview was conducted in 1998 by Dr Giuliana Pieri of Royal Holloway University, London. The Italian original appears within the article “Il nuovo giallo italiano: tra tradizione e postmodernità” on the website of the Edinburgh Journal of Gadda Studies: http://www.gadda.ed.ac.uk/Pages/resources/archive/periphery/pierigiallo.php . A version of the original interview was also published in 2000 in Delitti di carta vol IV, no 7, Bologna, CLUEB, pp. 57-66.
Giuliana Pieri’s research interests are firmly in the area of comparative and interdisciplinary studies, especially the intersection of the verbal and the visual, and the role of Italian visual culture in the construction of Italian identity both in Italy and abroad. She is the editor of Italian Crime Fiction (University of Wales Press 2011).
Jennifer Stockwell is a British-born, Canberra-based translator working from Italian, Arabic, French and German. Following six years’ professional translation and interpreting experience with the UK government, she currently works as a cyber security and cybercrime specialist while pursuing an MA Translation at the Australian National University, with a particular interest in European crime fiction.
The Australian Journal of Crime Fiction
Vol 2 No 1 2016
Editors: Barbara Pezzotti and Brigid Maher