Corruption and Italian Murder Mysteries

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Bribery, kickbacks, cost-overruns, money-laundering, embezzlement, extortion, and widespread flouting of laws. The organization Transparency International keeps track of the perceived degree of corruption in the world’s 190 countries. In 2017, TI ranked New Zealand, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Switzerland least corrupt, the United States 16th, and Italy 54th.

The US ranking seems high. My own state, Arkansas, has lately seen a spate of public officials brought before the law. On the national scale, we may have regressed further to “state capture” by the financial sector, the military industry, and others. Our governing family shows some resemblance to third world kleptocracies.

In other places, though, public and business corruption impinges on people every single day, every single business transaction. People are totally cynical about their government and indulge in daily obstruction rather than outright civil disobedience. Imagine if every time you went to a coffee shop, you colluded with the barista to avoid the sales tax. In fiction, you feel what it is like to live in a society where ordinary people have to live and work within a fraying social compact.

Italy’s problems with corruption owe something to the years under fascism and also to the modern power of criminal families that merge with more respectable industrialists. It seems many Italians blame the U.S. government, which made military use of the American Mafia during World War II, for unleashing this scourge on Italian society. Then, during the 1990s and 2000s Silvio Berlusconi, a billionaire who owns 90% of Italy’s broadcast media, led the nation as Prime Minister. If history repeats first as tragedy and then as comedy, Berlusconi, a demagogic populist often compared to Donald Trump, was the less virulent form of Mussolini.

Italy’s problems have given rise to a whole subgenre of murder mysteries in which an honest, decent police inspector must deal not only with solving crimes but also with threading his way through the complexities of a system where police have to deal with competing crime families and corrupt bureaucrats. In a jurisdictional complication, the Polizia steer clear of a second police system, the Carabineri or military police corps, once powerful under Mussolini. Police higher-ups may be political appointments, incompetent or worse. And investigators often confront invisible and silent witnesses, members of the general public who from suspicion of anything governmental, disappear or claim lack of knowledge.

Two series—both best-sellers in Europe and elsewhere—are a contrast in the tragic and comic modes. The Commissario Ricciardi novels by Maurizio de Giovanni take place in the 1930s, during the Fascist regime of Il Duce. Ricciardi is haunted by a gift—and curse—that he sees dead people in their last moments of a violent death. This ability sometimes helps him to solve crimes, but it also obstructs his desires for normal love and family relationships, although several women are strongly attracted to his intensity and air of mystery.

Giovanni’s novels take place in Naples, in the less prosperous southern half of Italy. The city has long had a reputation, deserved or not, as a dangerous place, yet all of Italy was dangerous in the Fascist ‘30s, and a subtle aura of evil lurks in the background. In all of these Italian novels, the city or region is so important that it might well be another character. Individuals in these books show strong opinions about other parts of Italy, as though they were still competitive city-states during the Renaissance.

In contrast to the almost operatic atmosphere of the Ricciardi novels, with their interweaving of subplots and flashbacks, the books about Inspector Salvo Montalbano, by Andrea Camillieri, are straightforward and sometimes funny to the point of slapstick. Inspector Montalbano has jurisdiction in the invented town of Vigata on the southwest coast of Sicily. The era is the 1990s and 2000s during repeated administrations of Silvio Berlusconi.

Salvo Montalbano is a middle-aged man with simple tastes who very much depends on regular servings of the local cuisine based on fresh seafood. He is also quite fond of his long-time, long-distance girlfriend Livia despite their frequent arguments and misunderstandings.  The inspector takes most things in his stride, including vendettas between rival crime families and hostile broadcasts by a local television newscaster who has a personal dislike for him. The Inspector is usually tolerant of the quirks and inadequacies of his policemen—one mangles the language, another one drives like a maniac—but occasionally Salvo blows up like Mt. Etna. He is, however, a shrewd detective, and usually there is method in his madness.

A BBC television series called Inspector Montalbano entertained audiences across Europe but does not seem to have reached these shores. For an evening’s read (the books are short) I recommend you acquaint yourself with Salvo Montalbano.

Perhaps my favorite series of Italian mystery novels is neither tragic nor comic but somewhere in between. Writer Donna Leon has created twenty or so novels about a Venetian policeman, Commissario Guido Brunetti. The Commissario is a thoughtful, cultured man, who reads the Roman classics in his spare time, and who is still capable of being shocked or disgusted by the depths of human nature. He has a wife who teaches at the local university and two teen-age children.

From these stories one learns a great deal about this old city on the water, now inundated with tourists and threatened by pollution from modern industries that are often Mafia-linked. Forget the gondolas, Venetians either walk or they use taxis or buses in the form of boats. They speak their own dialect of Italian and try valiantly to maintain their ancient distinctiveness, architecture, painters (Bellini, Titian, Tintoretto), and arts such as glassblowing. Leon has an intimate knowledge and obvious love for the city of Venice, and an understanding of people that goes below the surface.

If you prefer thrillers or blood and gore, this series is not your cup of tea. But if you like to read about well-rounded characters who live in a different milieu, and watch a decent, thinking man make difficult decisions in a corrupt society, then meet Commissario Brunetti, his colleagues, and his family.