The first Italian mystery dates back to 1852. It is titled Il mio cadavere and features two of the motifs we now typically associate to the genre: a dead body (il cadavere, indeed), and a medical examiner, Dr. Weiss. Mysteries, however, gained wide popularity—together with their iconic Italian name of giallo—beginning in the 1930s. Starting in 1929, Mondadori (to this day, one of the most prominent Italian publishers) began to publish mysteries and detective stories with yellow covers, hence the name il giallo, which in Italy designates mystery in all its nuances: detective fiction, mystery story, detective novel, crime, etc. There are more specific definitions—poliziesco, giallo classico, spionaggio, noir, thriller (which can be legale or medico)—but giallo encompasses all of them. As everywhere else in the world, mysteries foster critical thinking and analytical skills and there’s something to everyone’s liking, from literary masterpieces to beach reads.
First prominent authors and books
In the aftermath of WWII, gialli became more and more popular, mostly thanks to authors like Leonardo Sciascia with his Il giorno della civetta (The Day of the Owl) and Carlo Emilio Gadda, whose Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana (That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, set in Rome during the 1920s) received great approval from critics and public. One of the first Italian giallisti, however, is the maybe less widely known Giorgio Scerbanenco, a very versatile author whose work includes Sei giorni di preavviso and Venere privata (1966). Scerbanenco offered an overview of a fast-changing city (Milano) and country (Italy at large), underlining challenges and conflicts—countryside vs. city, a newly acquired wealth with many social issues yet to be solved— which was and still is very far from prevailing, sugar-coated narration of those years of boom economico.
A little later came Umberto Eco, a prominent medievalist, philosopher, semiotician, and writer. His debut novel Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose), a historical murder mystery set in a Northern Italian Benedictine monastery in 1327, has been translated in more than forty languages and steadily ranks among the bestselling books of all time.
The ’90s: the Scuola Bolognese and Camilleri
The 1990s witnessed the birth of the so-called Scuola del giallo Bolognese. Despite its name, however, there never has been a formal scuola encompassing its own language, themes, and motifs; it basically consisted of a group of authors coming from the same area—Bologna, of course. Its most beloved and celebrated authors are Loriano Machiavelli and Carlo Lucarelli. Together with Marcello Fois, the two founded Gruppo 13, a collective of local crime writers. Lucarelli’s vast production goes from novels to podcasts, TV shows, and radio programs. Among his memorable characters there are il Commissario De Luca, l’ispettore Coliandro, l’ispettore Grazia Negro (whose series includes Almost Blue, one of his most celebrated novels), and il capitano Colaprico.
This decade also saw the birth of Commissario Montalbano, a celebrated mystery series—later a cult TV show—written by Sicilian author Andrea Camilleri. Camilleri’s books have a peculiar structure. Each novel consists of eighteen chapters of ten pages each; short stories comprise four chapters of six pages each. Also, Camilleri uses a mix of standard Italian and Sicilian that can disorient even native speakers at first, but to which readers became acquainted and grew fond of in time, as they did with his characters and setting. The series takes place in imaginary Vigata, but the TV show was set in the Ragusa area, which is now a very popular destination for Montalbano fans.
Successful contemporary and promising young authors
Among the contemporary authors and/or young Italian giallisti, you might want to check out Raul Montanari, often referred to as the “pioneer of Italian post-noir,” Marilù Oliva, from Bologna (apparently, a city with a strong mystery vocation), Corrado De Rosa, Barbara Baraldi (from the Modena province, which is, it goes without saying, close to Bologna), and Matteo Strukul.
Lastly, not new to the crew, but surely noteworthy, Gianrico Carofiglio cannot be left off this list. A former anti-mafia judge in his native city, Bari, Carofiglio debuted as a novelist in 2002 with Testimone inconsapevole(Involuntary Witness), which was later turned into a very popular TV series. The novel features lawyer Guido Guerrieri as main character, who also appears in several other novels. Another Carofiglio series is based on Maresciallo dei Carabinieri Pietro Fenoglio. Carifiglio’s books have been translated in twenty-eight languages and have sold more than six million copies.
Italians love their gialli and, of course, they also read international past and present authors, driven by the same reasons as other readers around the world. Italian mysteries have their own peculiarity, and can help you understand more about recent history, current culture and social issues, as well as stimulate your curiosity. After reading about Guido Guerrieri’s routine in Bari or exploring the landmarks in Bologna as described by Carlo Lucarelli, rest assured that you will browse flights to those cities, just in case. Happy giallo reading!
By: Claudia Quesito