Volume 36, No. 2, Summer 2020
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Italy—The Mystery Setting by Robert J. Stern
- Donna Leon by Jack Erickson
- “It’s the System, Not the People”: Conor Fitzgerald’s Alec Blume Series by David Clark
- Food—A Critical Element in the Inspector Montalbano Mysteries by Joan Leotta
- Italy’s (In)Famous Son by Lisa Black
- An Introduction to Gang Life: Tuscany, c.1940 by Jay A. Gertzman
- Place, Food, Language and Sleaze: Setting in Italian Mysteries by Elizabeth Immirzi
- Music and Murder, Italian-style by Paul Adam
- “You See But You Do Not Observe” by Rona Bell
- Community Policing in Italy by Grace Brophy
- Of Operas and Artichokes by Shelley Costa / Stephanie Cole
- The Little Drummer by Sandrone Dazieri
- Italy: Land of Beauty, Mystery, and Inspiration by Rich DiSilvio
- Working in Italy by David Hewson
- An Italian Parking Ticket by Russell Hill
- The Lightning Bolt by Jack Erickson
- In the Beginning (and Ending)… Italy by Joseph LeValley
- The Italian Art Job by Larry Mild
- Bella Italia by Arthur Kerns
- Sicilian Murder by Alec Peche
- One Writer’s Origins (with Apologies to Ms. Welty) by Vito Racanelli
- Boat Memories by Sebastian Rotella
- The Diavolo in the Details by David P. Wagner
- Turn to Stone: Quarantined in Florence with Ellie Stone by James W. Ziskin
- Mystery in Retrospect: Reviews by Lesa Holstine, Lexa M. Mack, D.R. Ransdell, L.J. Roberts, Lucinda Surber, Nicola Trwst
- In Short: Italian Short Stories by Marvin Lachman
- The Children’s Hour: Mysteries Set in Italy by Gay Toltl Kinman
- Just the Facts: A New Patron Saint for Cops? by Jim Doherty
- Real Italy Mysteries by Cathy Pickens
- Crime Seen: Guido and Salvo, the Two Commissari by Kate Derie
- From the Editor’s Desk by Janet A. Rudolph
When you write books set in Italy people always say, ‘It must be nice to combine a vacation with work.’ Heaven forbid! Writing’s always work, and if it isn’t something’s wrong. For me if it ever feels easy I know I’m losing the plot.
For the tenth Nic Costa mystery, The Savage Shore, I faced a particular challenge. Parts of the story take us to places I know well—Capri, for example, and the Venetian lagoon. But most of the tale is in an area new to me, Calabria, the toe of Italy, and home to a vicious crime mob known as the ‘Ndrangheta who are at the heart of the story.
This is not the tourist heaven most people associate with Italy. True there are spectacular mountains, a handful of beautiful small seaside towns and a stunning archaeological museum in the regional capital Reggio. But for the most part the area is rural, a little run-down and in some areas clearly desperately poor.
It also has a fascinating history that’s largely unknown even to Italians. This part of the south once belonged to Greece and was colonised from the east long before the Romans came to conquer it. In the mountain villages you can still hear a dialect of Greek that’s much closer to the language of Homer than the demotic language you’ll find in modern Athens.
There are also historical links with Sicily across the water—some of them probably myth—that add a fascinating dimension to the story. So the difficulty for me was… how do I put this wonderful canvas over to the reader without distracting them from the story?
My base for my explorations was a beautiful little seaside town called Scilla. It’s near the Strait of Messina, with Sicily clearly visibly across the water. From the hills above at night you can see the red glow of Etna across the water. There’s a lovely local village of fishermen’s houses with boats in the footings. The locals are known for their swordfish vessels too, unique boats that ply the coast with tall watchtowers and a harpoonist in their bows—a scene that will make its way into the eventual book.
The landscape, the people, and the abandoned village I use as a principal location were all within driving distance. But that didn’t solve the technical problem of how to integrate the background with the story. Then one day I picked up a local guidebook. You often find these in area in the south—cheap little works that are written by locals and are a mixture of fact, history and myth and deeply entertaining if a little dodgy with the truth.
Ah. Dodgy with the truth.
And there was the way in. I invented an old guide book that appears to have been written by a relative of a character in the story. So each section of the tale begins with a relevant extract from this story within a story, one that leads into the narrative that follows.
That, I hope, helps the narrative move along and gives the reader an insight in a wonderful part of the world, well worth a visit if you like food, great views and lots of open space. In spite of the gang connections it’s also very safe. Though not, of course, for the Roman cops trying to penetrate it in The Savage Shore.
David Hewson spent twenty years as a newspaper journalist before writing his first novel, Semana Santa (aka Death in Seville) in 1995. Since then he has written over 30 novels and audio adaptations. His latest work is Shooter in the Shadows, a thriller set in Venice, Italy.
I write the Anthony and Macavity award-winning Ellie Stone mystery series. My books are set in the early 1960s. Ellie is a newspaper reporter based in upstate New York, but she moves around a good deal, which allows me to avoid Cabot Cove syndrome. In past installments, she’s solved murders in her native New York City, the Adirondack Mountains, Hollywood, and Saratoga Springs. And, in her latest mystery, Turn to Stone (January 2020), she visits Florence, Italy.
Ellie’s Italian connections go back to her birth. And to the very first Ellie Stone mystery. Did you know that Ellie’s full name is Eleonora?
I hate that name. It was a cruel joke of some kind, intended to make me seem interesting, but it sounds like something pulled out of a dusty, old carpetbag instead. My father said I was named for Eleonora Duse, the great Italian stage actress, and Eleonora of Toledo, wife of Cosimo I de’ Medici. I remember standing before a Bronzino painting in the Uffizi when I was ten, my father proudly pointing out my namesake. Eleonora was a beautiful, elegant lady with a fat little boy at her knee: her son Giovanni. Not far away, the same little boy, beaming from another Bronzino canvas, clutched a small, half-strangled bird in his chubby hand. I prefer to go by Ellie.
—Styx & Stone (2013)
And in Turn to Stone, Italy and the Italian language have starring roles wire-to-wire.
Tuesday, September 24, 1963
Upon arrival in Rome, I cleared customs at the spanking-new airport, where the immigration officer welcomed me to Italy with a wink, followed by a smart tap of his stamp in my passport. I’d been inoculated against pertussis, tetanus, and diphtheria, but not the charms of handsome Italians in uniform.
—Turn to Stone
It’s September, 1963, and Ellie is in Florence, Italy, to attend an academic symposium honoring her late father. But just as she arrives on the banks of the Arno, she learns that her host, Professor Alberto Bondinelli, has drowned in the river. Then a suspected rubella outbreak leaves ten of the symposium participants quarantined in a beautiful villa in Fiesole. Making the best of their confinement, the men and women spin tales and gorge themselves on fine Tuscan food and wine. As they do, long-buried secrets about Bondinelli rise to the surface, and Ellie must figure out if one or more of her companions is capable of murder.
It was a singular coincidence that Turn to Stone was released on January 21, 2020, one day after the first US Covid-19 case was diagnosed. A coincidence because quarantine plays such an important role in the story. So, if not from the current events of the day, where did the idea of a quarantine come from? The answer is 1348. More on that in moment.
First, here’s some background on my personal history with Italy. Over the past forty years, I’ve visited the paese del sole (country of the sun) twenty-five or thirty times. In an earlier career, I was a failed academic specializing in Italian (and French) language and literature. I ran out of gas—and desire—to finish my PhD. I just couldn’t see myself writing a dissertation on a topic that ultimately didn’t thrill me. And job prospects in academia were pretty dismal back then.
What I really wanted to do was write novels. But I remained in the academic realm, working in administration at New York University. In 1994, as director of NYU’s Casa Italiana, I had the plum assignment of organizing the first summer program at Villa La Pietra in Florence, a magnificent property left to the university by Sir Harold Acton. There were university symposia and I made many private visits to Italy as well. All of those contributed to the atmosphere I created in Turn to Stone.
But my very first trip to Italy was in July 1978. At the time, I knew no Italian at all. When I crossed from France into Italy, I peered out the train window to see which city was our first stop. There were blue-and-white signs over the doors on the platform. They read, “Uscita.” I’d never heard of that city before. Then we pulled into the next station. Again there were the blue “Uscita” signs, and I felt like a fool. Uno scemo. For the record, Ventimiglia was the first station after the border, and uscita is Italian for “exit.”
I sometimes think my ties to Florence were preordained. In 1997, an Italian student, who’d worked part time at the Casa Italiana, asked if I’d be interested in leaving NYU to join his family’s subtitling company, which was based in Florence but opening an operation in Los Angeles. It was difficult decision at the time, but I know it was the right one. I moved to L.A. in early 1998 and embarked on what was to become a richly rewarding career in subtitling, with many, many business trips to Florence as a bonus.
So, today, forty-two years after my first visit to Florence, I’ve finally managed to marry my love of Italian with my love of writing fiction.
Now, about 1348 and my inspiration to put a quarantine in Turn to Stone. The Decameron is a fourteenth-century collection of one hundred stories written by Giovanni Boccaccio. There are plenty of bawdy stories, touching ones as well, and some duds. Let’s face it, they can’t all be winners. Especially if you’re writing a hundred of them.
The stories are set against the backdrop of the Black Death that ravaged Europe from 1348 to 1353, killing an estimated thirty to sixty percent of the population. In the Decameron, ten young Florentines, eager to escape the horrors of the plague, decide to leave the city and death behind. They meet at Santa Maria Novella and make the journey up the hill to a beautiful villa in Fiesole. Sound familiar? There, with little to do but eat, drink, and be merry, they take turns telling stories and playing music. That should also sound familiar. Each day, one of the young people is designated king or queen and decides the theme for that day’s stories. Ten days, ten stories each day, one hundred stories in all.
The framework of the Decameron has always fascinated me, from the first time I read it so many years ago in school. It serves almost as an extra tale, bringing the total to 101. In many ways it resembles the locked-room structure we see in so many great mysteries, from Agatha Christie to books and stories being written today. And for some time now I’ve wanted to use that structure in one of my Ellie Stone mysteries. Of course I couldn’t put a worldwide pandemic in my book, since none took place in 1963. But there were plenty of diseases with no cure and no vaccine. So I settled on German measles. Rubella. I chose it for my quarantine for reasons that suited the plot. One, it was not fatal. Two, the symptoms in many infected people are mild or absent all together. And three, there was not yet a vaccine for it in 1963.
Once I had my disease, I could quarantine my characters in the villa in Fiesole, much the way the Black Death had done in 1348 for Boccaccio’s ten young storytellers. The difference, of course, is that my characters aren’t exactly risking death. And, provided none of the ten sequestered characters is pregnant, there is little real danger to anyone’s health or future. My story is not intended to be about disease. Nor was it supposed to be about death—except for the aforementioned Professor Alberto Bondinelli.
I knew it would be impractical, if not impossible, to write one hundred stories into my novel. So I settled for one story each day instead of ten. Not only did I borrow the framework from Boccaccio, I had my characters borrow stories from the Decameron as well. But I twisted them just enough to work as clues to the central mystery of the novel.
Besides Boccaccio, I plotted the mystery around events in Italy’s recent history. The two world wars, the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, the fascist Ventennio, the Racial Laws of 1938, and the deportation of 10,000 Italian Jews to the death camps in the East.
So you’ll find not only art, music, and a bucolic setting in Turn to Stone, but tragic events of the past as well. I tried to tie them all together into a portrait of a country I love.
James W. Ziskin is the author of the Anthony and Macavity award-winning Ellie Stone mysteries. Turn to Stone is the seventh Ellie Stone mystery after Styx & Stone, No Stone Unturned, Stone Cold Dead, Heart of Stone, Cast the First Stone, and A Stone’s Throw. His books have also been finalists for the Edgar, Barry, and Lefty awards.
Several writers in this issue have mentioned the two television series based on the popular novels by Donna Leon and Andrea Camillieri. Happily, these series are now available for streaming through the MHz Choice service. Commissario Guido Brunetti and Commissario Salvo Montalbano “as seen on TV” may not resemble their literary counterparts in every detail, but they are well worth meeting in their video incarnations.
What is a Commissario anyway? Many English-speaking countries reserve the term Commissioner (the literal translation) for civilan overseers of the police. In Italy, a Commissario is generally the head of a town or area Questura (police station), as Montalbano is the chief of police in Vigata. In a larger city, several Commissari (the plural of Commissario) might work under a Vice-Questore, as does Brunetti. The UK equivalent is generally considered to be a Chief Superintendent; in most US cities the equivalent rank is Chief or Captain.
We can revel in Venetian atmosphere through Donna Leon’s Brunetti Mysteries (2000-2019, 27 eps.), even though we are hearing German voices while reading English subtitles. The entire show is filmed on location, and we follow Commissario Brunetti and Sergente Vianello as their sleek police launch takes them through narrow canals and across the magnificent bay. Just as dazzling are the scenes set inside historic palazzos, with their 15-foot ceilings and gilded carvings, paintings and furnishings that will make your artistic sensibilities swoon.
The stories are as complex as the décor and reveal the hidden corruption beneath the glamorous surface. Brunetti’s boss is eager to continue his climb through the ranks by standing on Brunetti’s shoulders, but is handicapped by lacking understanding of, and access to, the power elite of the city. Meanwhile native Venetian Brunetti is able to thread his way through the local intrigues and intricacies. The boss’s flirtatious secretary, Signorina Elettra, can produce any information imaginable, either through her computer skills or through her extensive network of contacts. And if all else fails, Guido can call on his father-in-law, who is a member of the old aristocracy.
Just as important to Brunetti and to the show is the close support of his family, who laugh and argue in equal measures as they have meals on the roof terrace or visit Brunetti’s mother in the gardens of her elder-care home. His university-professor wife, Paola, and his teenage son and daughter introduce Guido to various social conscience issues in a believable way. All of these characters are portrayed by actors who give them warmth and complexity, so that continuity is maintained even though the actors for Brunetti and his wife change (for the better) after the first four episodes.
Donna Leon commented in a 2011 video interview that the Brunetti TV series was “very, very German.” She pointed out that while Italians are constantly gesturing and touching each other, the German actors are very uptight—a valid criticism, especially when you compare this production to the Italian-made Montalbano series.
Literally and figuratively at the opposite end of the country, Detective Montalbano (aka Inspector Montalbano, aka Il commissario Montalbano, 1999-2020, 36 eps) takes us to the hot, parched, poor, and much disrespected island of Sicily. (On other Italian crime shows, if police officers screw up they are threatened with transfer to Sicily.) But the irrepressible spirit of both book and TV series have brought so many tourists wanting to experience the fictional setting of Vigata for themselves, that for a time the real-life town of Porto Empedocle adopted the name Porto Empedocle Vigata.
Montalbano is Brunetti’s opposite in many ways. He is a bachelor, maintaining a long distance romance with his beloved Livia. In the show, at least, he never misses a meal at his favorite seafood restaurant, and always says “yes” when offered cannoli, but he stays fit by swimming daily in the ocean right across the beach from his home. He must negotiate with the Mafia, cope with the bureaucracy, and juggle the needs of refugees and rural poverty. Refreshingly, his boss is highly supportive and protects Salvo from some of the fallout of his unconventional operations.
The Montalbano series has been running for twenty years, so when we binge watch, we see his team age and—in some cases—mature. His deputy, Vice Commissario Mimi Augello, goes from being a dedicated playboy to a family man—albeit still with an eye for the ladies. Ispettore Fazio, whose obsessively detailed reports drove Montalbano crazy in the early days, has developed a sense of proportion—but the worry lines on his forehead are now permanently grooved. Even the comic Catarella, who can never get names right, went on a computer course and became a technical whiz when needed. And the body language of the Montalbano team is unquestionably, authentically Italian. I have read comments from American viewers who complained of the “overacting”—obviously they have never been to Italy!
The difference in atmosphere between Brunetti and Montalbano is, to me, epitomized by the theme music. While Brunetti uses a romantic orchestral waltz, Montalbano starts with a Sicilian dance, almost a tango, that at first seemed to me discordant and arrhythmic. After hearing it many times, however, I began to pick up the alternating patterns that shift melody and time signatures from staccato to swirling. Like Sicilian food and dialect, it is unique.
For those of us who can’t get enough Montalbano, MHz is also running Young Montalbano (13 eps., 2012 & 2015). This series shows Montalbano coming to Vigata as a newly-minted Commissario, so young he has hair! (Luca Zingarelli, the actor who plays Montalbano, shaves his head.) Naturally, there are also much younger versions of the entire team, including Fazio’s father. And we see how Salvo meets Livia.
Kate Derie lived in Naples, Italy, for three years while a US Naval officer.