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Modern Italy

Volume 18, Issue 4, 2013

This volume is the first study in English to focus on Italian crime fiction. It provides not only an analysis of this literary genre from a historical perspective but also a thematic approach on specific aspects including the representation of space, gender and the post-war Italian tradition of impegno. The study includes an introduction by the editor Giuliana Pieri, seven chapters by an excellent team of contributors and a very clear and useful annotated bibliography by Lucia Rinaldi.
In her Introduction, Pieri explains the importance and the essence of this study:
The chapters in this book, in highlighting the contribution of Italian crime fiction to the most important social and often political debates of the time, as well as showing the literary and stylistic innovations brought about by Italian crime writers, argue strongly in favour of reinserting Italian crime fiction into the nation's literary canon. (p. 3)
By making reference to a series of well-established literary critics and authors including Antonio Gramsci, Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco and Giuseppe Petronio, all of whom approached Italian crime fiction without the systematic and typical indifference and suspicion of the Italian academic and literary establishment, Pieri explains that it is impossible to assess the literary texts of today using the criteria of the past. In other words, this volume makes clear that genres have become points of reference in terms of themes and structures which authors can use for a variety of purposes. Consequently, the distinctive trait of a literary text is not the genre to which the text belongs. This fundamental aspect must be combined with the increasingly civil, moral, ethical and philosophical significance of Italian crime fiction, especially in the way it is reflected in the renewed notion of impegno. As Pieri puts it, ‘in the postmodern world, crime fiction has been transformed by Italian writers into a new powerful vehicle to express Italy's discontents and to deal with the new challenges posed by the social and political changes of the new millennium’ (p. 4). The result is a body of works that not only provides a historical overview of this genre in the Italian context but also, and above all, emphasises the fundamental contribution of Italian crime writers to the need to constantly renew the concept of impegno by broadening its scope and use against any restrictive ideological imposition.
In Chapter 2, Jane Dunnett illustrates the proliferation of crime fiction in Italy during the Fascist period by tracing a brief publishing history of the genre's earliest origins and providing a more detailed discussion of the context and constraints of production under Fascism. The analysis then focuses on the fundamental role of Mondadori's I libri gialli series, with a particular focus on the detective novels available in translation, and the works of Italian authors such as Ezio D'Errico, Augusto De Angelis and Giorgio Scerbanenco. In Chapter 3, Jennifer Burns explains the key evidence in support of identifying Giorgio Scerbanenco as a founding father of Italian crime fiction by analysing the way in which the author created in the Duca Lamberti series an original Italian giallo. Burns convincingly argues that Scerbanenco has made the setting of his novels a fundamental element in the narrative in an attempt to discuss the social issues of Milan in the 1960s. In addition to this, Burns' analysis also focuses on the author's style and his portrayal of the detective, and in particular of women, gender and sexuality which, as Burns claims, ‘is perhaps the area where Scerbanenco's writing encapsulates most immediately and intensely its times’. Chapter 4 by Joseph Farrell discusses how Gadda, Eco, Tabucchi and Sciascia have ensured, each in his own way, that Italian crime fiction has a respected and well-established place in the contemporary Italian literature context as well as providing original models for contemporary crime fiction authors. In Chapter 5, Luca Somigli illustrates the rise of the crime novels ‘made in Bologna’ from the 1970s to the present by analysing two of the major members of the Gruppo 13 (Loriano Macchiavelli and Carlo Lucarelli) and by giving an overview of other giallisti bolognesi including Danila Comastri Montanari, Maurizio Matrone and Pino Cacucci. Chapter 6 by Mark Chu focuses on regional identity and its representation in the novels of Andrea Camilleri (Sicily), Marcello Fois (Sardinia) and Gianrico Carofiglio (Puglia). In Chapter 7, Giuliana Pieri and Lucia Rinaldi explore the gender issue through the analysis of women crime writers (Nicoletta Vallorani, Grazia Verasani and Barbara Garlaschelli) as central protagonists in the renewed concept of impegno. Their novels focus mainly on the family as a patriarchal construct which allows several forms of violence towards women. Pieri and Rinaldi compellingly argue that women crime writers have shown that the new socially and politically motivated literature is not exclusively a male sphere. In the final chapter, in her analysis of the representation of the urban space in the works of many Milanese writers including De Angelis, Scerbanenco, Renato Olivieri, Piero Colaprico, Sandrone Dazieri and Gianni Biondillo, Pieri argues that the image of Milan has changed through time, shifting from a bleak reflection of its periphery based mainly on anonymity to a città diffusa, an ironic portrayal of an extended city (Milan and its periferia diffusa) characterised by a new aesthetics and way of life. Rinaldi's bibliography concludes the volume.
The main value of this volume is to offer a new critical approach which avoids, as Pieri puts it, ‘the bias against this popular narrative in Italy … and the consequent prejudice and snobbism of the Italian academic and literary establishment against the detective novel’ (p. 2). It is only by recognising the closeness of this genre to its readers and their problems, or as Petronio puts it, the existence of ‘una letteratura di una società di massa’, that the gap created by the misleading prejudice in relation to high literature (letteratura) and low-brow literature (paraletteratura) seems to disappear, allowing new approaches in terms of assessment of literary texts in line with the renewed concept of impegno. This is an essential collection that lays the foundations and paves the way for further detailed critical analyses of many writers and works of this fascinating literary genre.
© 2013, Marco Paoli

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