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A Brief History of Giallo Fiction and the Italian Anti-Detective Novel


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Italy is commonly perceived as having a long history of crime. So, it might come as a surprise that the country’s homegrown crime writing tradition had a late start. In the early 20th century, detective novels were considered as foreign to Italy. Terms like suspense (in reference to the genre popularized by Hitchcock) were an English import and only introduced in the language in the 1950s.

The first detective novel to be published in Italy, S.S. Van Dine’s The Benson Murder Case, was published in 1929 by Mondadori. This novel marked the beginning of a successful crime series, known as gialli—taking its name from the characteristic yellow cover. Two years later, the series introduced its inaugural Italian crime novel: Il sette bello by Alessandro Varaldo (1931).

Throughout the 1930s, however, Mondadori continued publishing mostly translated works, with an emphasis on Anglo-American authors, in response to Italy’s markedly xenophilic readership. But by the mid-1930s, the proliferation of crime novels featuring foreign investigators became a concern for the fascist authorities. They viewed the genre as subversive and sought to curtail the its momentum. Translation quotas were therefore introduced, under the guise of cultural protectionism. Meanwhile, the regime’s propaganda machine went to extraordinary lengths to vilify crime literature—painting it as inferior, morally corrupt, and incongruent with Italian virtues.

But these measures were only the beginning. In 1937 the Ministry of Popular Culture (MinCulPop), helmed by Dino Alfieri, stunned the publishing industry by proclaiming that in novels “the murderer must absolutely not be Italian and cannot escape justice in any way” and demanded that the following words be printed on the cover of foreign books:

Gli usi e i costumi della polizia descritti in quest’opera non sono italiani. In Italia, Giustizia e Pubblica Sicurezza sono cose serie. (The police’s customs and methods here described are not Italian. In Italy, justice and public safety are serious things.)

Despite these restrictive measures, the crime genre was so popular that a growing number of Italian authors began writing crime novels in an attempt to capitalize on its mass popularity. However, the majority of the domestic gialli published in this embryonic stage failed to pass muster with their readership. The delicate balancing act between the regime’s strict demands and the reader’s genre expectations, which were mostly shaped by Anglo-American crime novels, was partly to blame for the Italian authors’ inability to measure up to their foreign counterparts. As a result, the Italian crime novel of the 1930s was by and large a fiasco—derivative, feigned, and with little artistic value.

In the following years, the regime continued to exert an increasingly tighter grip on editorial freedom. The censorial campaign eventually shifted from so-called cultural protectionism to blatant hard censorship. In 1941, Mussolini—baselessly blaming foreign crime novels for the spike in felonies—demanded that Mondadori discontinue its gialli series. Two years later all crime novels in Italy were confiscated and destroyed. The Mondadori’s crime series did not reopen until 1947.

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Stymied by censorship and, to some extent, by hostile and dismissive criticism, Italy’s initial failed attempt at developing a crime writing tradition resulted in a belated flourishing and a significant re-imagining of the detective yarn.

Carlo Emilio Gadda and, later, Leonardo Sciascia are unanimously considered the founding fathers of the anti-detective novel Italian style, even though they didn’t necessarily think of themselves as crime writers. Perhaps, the choice of the genre was, at least in Gadda’s case, a sign of protest, a way to channel a strong anti-fascist sentiment. In Form and Ideology, Luca Somigli suggests that for a long time after World War II, Italian authors had no choice but to deviate from the canon of classic crime fiction in order to write detective stories that would be accepted by the public (67). And this is exactly what Gadda and Sciascia set out to do.

The publication of Kafka’s Il Processo (The Trial), introduced in the country in 1933—at a time when the Italianate crime novel had yet to find a clear voice and identity—was arguably the catalyst that proffered the genre its distinctive aesthetic. Deemed by many critics as one of the first examples of what came to be regarded as a postmodern take on the detective story, The Trial provided an ideal blueprint for a type of detective novel that blurred the lines between popular crime fiction and highbrow literature.

Gadda, who had known of Kafka at least since 1935, was the pioneer and leading exemplar of the simultaneous rise of the giallo and its metamorphosis into letterature alta (high literature). His macaronic masterpiece Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via merulana (That Awful Mess on Via Merulana), first serialized in 1947, is a feat of Joycean wordplay and generally regarded as the greatest detective novel ever written in Italy.

Set against the backdrop of fascist Italy, the novel follows the investigation of two related crimes committed in an affluent apartment in central Rome within days of each other: the theft of a large sum of money and precious jewelry, and the murder a well-to-do young woman. The detective assigned to the case, Francesco Ingravallo—a secret admirer of the victim—soon discovers that nearly everyone residing at that apartment building is somehow connected to the crimes, but with each new development in the case the mystery only grows deeper.

The suspicion, outlined early on in the novel, that the investigation might not yield a tidy resolution violates the classic rules and expectations of the genre:

Sosteneva, fra l’altro, che le inopinate catastrofi non sono mai la conseguenza o l’effetto che dir si voglia d’un unico motivo, d’una causa al singolare: ma sono come un vortice, un punto di depressione ciclonica nella coscienza del mondo, verso cui hanno cospirato tutta una molteplicità di causali convergenti. (He sustained, among other things, that unforeseen catastrophes are never the consequence or the effect, if you prefer, of a single motive, of a cause singular; but they are rather like a whirlpool, a cyclonic point of depression in the consciousness of the world, towards which a whole multitude of converging causes have contributed.)

In a 1975 article titled Breve storia del romanzo poliziesco (A Short History of the Detective Novel), Sciascia claims that Gadda “wrote the most absolute ‘giallo’ that has ever been written, a ‘giallo’ without a solution.” The novel’s lack of a straightforward conclusion has been the subject of much debate. At the time, some critics were confused by the ending, while others went as far as to claim that the novel was unfinished. In an interview with Dacia Maraini, Gadda addresses the criticism with this gnomic remark:

I intentionally cut it (That Awful Mess on Via Merulana) off half-way because the giallo should not be dragged out like certain artificial crime stories that go on ad nauseam and end up tiring the mind of the reader. I consider it finished … literarily concluded. The detective knows who the murderer is and that is sufficient.

The truncated ending and the many unanswered searches in That Awful Mess on Via Merulana inevitably conjure up parallels with Kafka’s mysterious and unending investigations. Like the Czech author, Gadda is not concerned with providing a clear resolution. In his view, truth is messy, elusive, and often impossible to prove. What matters to him is the exploration of the chaotic and tangential nature of the search for the truth.

To this day, the mere idea of an Italian crime novel with a perfectly linear structure, no loose ends, and a happy denouement strikes as inconsistent with the country’s labyrinthian bureaucracy, high levels of corruption, and long history of organized crime. Is it even possible, then, to write a traditional detective novel in Italy?

Not according to Sciascia. His idiosyncratic detective fiction not only suggests as much but also seems to prove the impossibility of writing classic crime fiction in Italy, or at least in a Sicilian setting. Italo Calvino, upon reading Sciascia’s latest manuscript A ciascuno il suo (To Each His Own), in a letter to the author, remarks on this point:

Ho letto il tuo giallo che non è un giallo, con la passione con cui si leggono I gialli, e in più il divertimento di vedere come il giallo viene smontato, anzi, come viene dimostrata l’impossibilità del romanzo giallo nell’ambiente siciliano. (I read your giallo that is not a giallo with all the passion with which one reads gialli, and in addition with amusement at seeing how the giallo is deconstructed, or rather how you prove the impossibility of writing a giallo in a Sicilian environment.)

Published in 1966, To Each His Own, which takes place in a small Sicilian town, is a superbly crafted giallo and arguably Sciascia’s most accomplished anti-detective novel. Manno, the pharmacist, receives an anonymous death threat, though he can’t think of any reasons why. The following day, he and his long-time friend Dr. Roscio, the town optician, are murdered while out on one of their regular hunting trips. The official investigation appears doomed from the start, for the policemen make little to no progress. However, Professor Laurana, an unassuming high school teacher with a literary bent, who happened to be present when the threatening letter was delivered, believes he has detected an important clue that will help him trace the culprit. Driven more by intellectual curiosity than ethical reasons, Laurana embarks on a reckless investigation. Patiently and methodically, the hapless professor uncovers a dense web of erotic and political intrigue, which will lead to an unexpected and tragic ending.

Taking a cue from his predecessor, Sciascia breaks from the classic tenets of crime fiction. He refuses to provide the reader with a neat resolution and further upsets the formula of the genre by almost making a mockery of the exercise of reason. Laurana’s tactics are intentionally stereotypical and shopworn. The author makes it a point to let the reader know that the mystery is somewhat solved in spite of Laurana’s best efforts. Moreover, Sciascia ingeniously subverts the very idea of suspense. The reader, half-way through the novel, is able to guess who the culprit is. This lack of suspense gives way to another kind of suspense as the reader anxiously awaits to see where Laurana’s childish curiosity will lead in the end. Contrary to the reader’s expectations—in To Each His Own, the uncovering of truth is not in the least restorative; quite the opposite, it proves to be a pointless exercise, leading nowhere.

The author’s deeply cynical view and mistrust of Sicily, its inhabitants, and the judicial system is in full display in this novel. Like Gadda, Sciascia is not interested in solving the crime. A happy denouement is not even an option. Instead, he focuses all his energy into exposing a corrupt and profoundly dysfunctional society, where the detective—like Joseph K., caught in a bureaucratic nightmare—must face an endless ongoing struggle with inscrutable forces.

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Despite the many years of censorship and demonization of the genre, Carlo Emilio Gadda and Leonardo Sciascia kept Italy’s crime writing tradition alive and, to an extent, succeeded in putting it centerstage. They challenged and re-imagined the conventions of the crime novel and elevated its literary status. Their experimentations led to the creation of a uniquely Italian anti-detective novel, laying the groundwork for subsequent authors such as the internationally renowned Antonio Tabucchi (The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro), Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose), and many others.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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