by Massimo Carlotto
from Mystery Readers Journal,
Volume 22, No. 1
Today in Italy, the police novel is thought of as the literature of reality: it is the only literature capable of narrating the story of Italy today, its transformations and its contradictions. Telling a crime story set in a specific place, unfolding at a specific moment, is increasingly becoming an excuse to recount the social, political, economic, and historical realities surrounding events recounted in the story itself. What’s more, the disappearance of investigative journalism in our country has moved some authors to embed their plots in the reality of the daily news.
I belong to that current defined as “Mediterranean Noir,” which has chosen to deal with those great revolutions that globalization of the world economy has brought to the criminal universe. My novels always recount true stories; obviously, truth is mixed with fictions imposed by the form of the novel itself. The aim is to recount those things the newspapers and the television will not, or cannot.
In this sense, today’s police novel can be defined as political writing. Generally, from the authors of these novels comes a precise, political criticism of the current situation in Italy.
The majority of authors, however, believe that in the police novel, through comforting finales in which good triumphs over evil, the concept of legality must triumph in order to reaffirm the principles of the State in a country where illegality is widespread in every social and economic sphere.
This, too, is a political position.
Personally, I do not share this position. I believe the role of writers working in this genre is to recount the relationship between organized crime and the financial, political and business worlds as realistically as possible, without inventing fairytales about the triumph of the state’s legality. These fairytales make no sense in a country where representatives of the selfsame government are accused of fiscal crimes and, in some cases, of connivance with the mafia.
Italian readers no longer think of the police novel as simple entertainment, as escapist literature, and they want novels that deal with what is happening around them. I receive requests from people every day asking that my literary personage in the Alligator series (the PI Marco Buratti, aka The Alligator), take up some new case that has aroused their interest. There was a time when they turned to journalists, but nowadays the channels of information in Italy are clogged with domestic or morbid misdeeds. They have turned their back on large-scale crime. This, despite the fact that in addition to traditional mafias—Sicilian, Calabrian, Puglian—foreign mafias have set up camp here on our shores. The Russian, Chinese, Croatian, Romanian, Serbian, and Nigerian mafias are real; they have set up bases, men, and activities within our borders. The most disturbing aspect of this is the commercial relationship centering on money laundering that exists between mafias and “clean” milieus. Corruption is one of the most devastating evils in Italian society: this much is undeniable. Moral corruption too, running rampant through all spheres of society, stimulating widespread illegality. Tax evasion, illegal labor, unlawful traffic in industrial waste, the systematic violation of federal laws: these activities are no longer the exclusive domain of criminals, but involve the country’s economic, financial and political powers. Moreover, Italian daily news is rife with stories of corruption within the State itself, in the police forces, in the courts.
For these reasons, I chose a serial character like The Alligator: ex blues musician who has served time for a crime he didn’t commit and who, once released from jail, makes himself available to defense lawyers working on cases involving the underworld. An investigator without a license. Covert. Assisted by two very unusual associates: Beniamino Rossini, smuggler and thief (based on a living person); and Max Memory, former member of the revolutionary leftwing. Three characters living outside the rules, outside the law, because I did not want to feel myself tied to the concept of institutional truth; that is, judicial truth. What really interests me is the authenticity of the social realities narrated in my books. The characters’ innocence and guilt is a mere detail.
This idea of “police novel inextricably connected to reality” implies that the author conduct lengthy research and employ bona fide investigative methods when constructing the plot of a novel. These days, before beginning to write, many Italian authors turn investigators. Among these, there are even a number of trained professionals, policemen and judges. The common denominator among these writers is their sense of place. Our country is divided into distinct regions and the criminal realities within our borders differ immensely from place to place. This implies a precise, thorough understanding on the part of the author, and usually means that authors decide to set their novels in regions where they were born or have lived for some time.
Seen as a whole, the realities narrated in police novels are extremely variegated. But they are always capable of satisfying the expectations of readers. When I tour Italy, I am always faced with readers who, far more than wanting to discuss literary style, desire to speak of the latest news and politics. This demonstrates how the modern crime genre is becoming an extraordinary instrument with which to describe the reality in which we live. For some time now, in addition to the Alligator series, I have been writing noir that allows me to confront burning questions without feeling obliged to play to what pleases readers. Reading these books (The Goodbye Kiss, Northeast, and others) tends to provoke discomfort in the reader. And this is subsequently transformed into a catalyst for debate. But then, this is the goal of a literary genre that has chosen to dig into the dark angles of our society. The classic police novel in which a reassuring finale tidies up the social chaos provoked by crime has had its day. Today, those who want to believe in fairytales watch television, which is full of programs in which evil is defeated. But those who want to remain in touch with reality turn to our novels, where the difference between good and evil is increasingly subtle.
People today feel betrayed; they no longer believe the truths handed to them by a State that has proved itself dishonest. And in this literary genre they find a source of truth and information. Naturally, the literary quality of each individual novel is immensely important. It is not enough to plot an important story; one must also know how to write it.
Translated by Michael Reynolds
(This article first appeared in Greek in the magazine Diavazo, 2005)