Friday, November 27, 2020

Remembering crime writer P D James

 How the ‘new Queen of Crime’ found the ideas for her novels

When crime writer P D James died on this day in 2014, it was a sad occasion for all who love the traditional, English detective story.

Baroness James, who began writing in the 1950s, was a link with the Golden Age of crime writing and has gone on record as saying one of her own favourite writers was Dorothy L Sayers.

And after the death of the acknowledged Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, in 1976, P D James was sometimes referred to by the media as ‘the New Queen of Crime’.

She will be remembered particularly for her 14 Adam Dalgliesh novels, many of which have been filmed for television.

Living until the age of 94 enabled Baroness James to enjoy her success and to go on set to watch the films of her books being made, meeting actor Roy Marsden, who was the first to play the part of Dalgliesh, on many occasions.

As a young journalist I was lucky enough to meet P D James at Minsmere in East Anglia during the filming of Unnatural Causes in 1992.

She was kind enough to give me some interview time and I was able to ask her some questions about her writing methods which gave me the basis for a newspaper feature.

I interviewed P D James in the caravan she had been allotted while out on location alongside two male journalists who both seemed far more confident than myself.

But the kindly mother and grandmother, who was 72 at the time, soon put me at ease. And when it became obvious that neither of my fellow hacks had actually read any of her books and were interested mainly in the filming, I plucked up the courage to ask her about her relationship with her main character, a widower who is a poet as a well as a policeman.

She admitted that there was a lot of herself in the character of Dalgliesh as they shared a love of poetry, architecture, bird watching and the terrain of East Anglia.

She said: “I think if you are going to have a character who goes on for a series of books you do tend to give them the same interests as you have.”

Another characteristic she said they shared was taking pleasure in being alone. “I do need to be on my own when I’m writing. I need the house to be empty. It’s very strange.”

Although by then she had become a Baroness and was sitting in the House of Lords she said she made sure that when she was working on a book she did not let anything stop her writing every day.

“I very much enjoy writing detective fiction. I love the construction, the clue making, the characterisation. I love everything about it.”

I asked if she had decided to keep Dalgliesh single because it made him a more interesting character.  He had met and fallen for a young woman in her first novel Cover her Face (1962) but the relationship hit a stumbling block when he had to arrest her mother for murder.

Baroness James seemed amused but did not really answer the question. She referred to Dorothy L Sayers, who was often thought to be in love with her fictional creation Lord Peter Wimsey, but eventually married him off to a woman mystery writer, Harriet Vane.

“When she married him off it was as though she had done with him and she wrote very little about him afterwards,” P D James said.

She then revealed that she was intending to write a new Dalgliesh novel and in doing so, she gave me some valuable advice.

“I think I have the germ of an idea for another Dalgliesh book at the back of my mind now, inspired by a place. My books nearly always are inspired by a place or a setting.”

She said the opening scene of Unnatural Causes had been originally inspired by a particular part of East Anglia. “I was standing on the beach at Dunwich and I had this strong idea of a boat drifting ashore containing a corpse with the hands cut off at the wrist.”

She actually went on to write another six Adam Dalgliesh novels after my meeting with her, the last one being The Private Patient, published in 2008.

More than 20 years after our conversation, I finally started crime writing myself and took her advice by allowing a mysterious and magical setting, the upper town of Bergamo, a walled city in northern Italy, to be the inspiration for my first novel Death in the High City. 

Cover her Face and Unnatural Causes are both available on Amazon.

 

 

Monday, November 23, 2020

Write it down!

The value of keeping an ideas notebook

I am often asked where I get my ideas from by people in the audience when I give talks about my books.

It is a simple enough question, but the simple answer isn’t very helpful to others, so I usually try to expand on it.

I get my ideas from everywhere. I get them from stories and anecdotes people tell me, things I read in the newspapers, court cases that make the news, people I see when I am out and about, conversations I overhear, the list is endless.

Agatha Christie's ideas notebooks
But to make these ideas work and become the basis for a short story or an entire novel, you have to do three things.

First, you have to be open to ideas. You have to train yourself to be curious, to observe people and to make a conscious effort to think about what you hear and see. Afterwards you have to mull it over and consider how it could form the basis of a plot.

Second, you have to be creative. You can’t just take an idea and make it the plot for your book or meet an interesting person and put them straight in as a character. You have to play around with the ideas and think about how you can adapt them to fit your story, perhaps turning them inside out or adding a new twist. And with every idea you constantly have to ask yourself, what if?

Most of my characters are based on lots of different people. For example, my heroine, Sallie Parker, in The Body Parts in the Library has personality traits from many of my friends.

Third, you have to make a conscious effort to remember the ideas until you get the opportunity to write them down. You should write your ideas in a notebook you keep specifically for that purpose rather than on odd scraps of paper you could lose.

I often have a good idea and don’t get round to writing it down straight away and as a result forget what the idea was.

Also, I am not the most organised of people and have even been known to lose my notebook for a few days, so I like to have several on the go.

I don’t have very neat handwriting, so I have to make a conscious effort to write the idea down clearly so I can read it back later.

When I start plotting my novel I read through my notebooks and think about how I can use the ideas, providing I can read what I have written! Then I start another notebook specifically for my new novel, and put all the ideas in that seem to suit the story and hopefully the beginnings of a plot emerges from them.

I have always found it useful to read about the working methods of other writers in my particular genre to see if I can pick up any tips. There are lots of excellent books about the writing techniques of famous writers, which can’t fail to inspire other budding writers.

John Curran's book
 about Agatha's notebooks
I was fascinated recently to come across a book about Agatha Christie’s method of noting down her ideas and I was heartened to find she was nearly as disorganised as me!

Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty years of Mysteries in the Making, offers readers the chance to see the rough, initial notes Agatha made for her novels in a large and varied stack of note books. You can read the first ideas she scribbled down that were to form the basis for some of her most famous and acclaimed stories.

It is inspiring to be able to see how even half formed ideas expressed in just a few cryptic words could lead to a best selling novel being produced that would be printed and reprinted time and time again and made into several different film and TV adaptations.

The author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, John Curran, was lucky enough to be the first Christie fan to be granted access to her work notebooks.

When he was invited to visit her former home, he stumbled across a cardboard box full of notebooks kept on a shelf in a long, narrow room where all the letters, contracts and typescripts relevant to Agatha’s work were kept.

Agatha wrote her ideas for novels
 in a series of notebooks
John recalls the moment he discovered the notebooks: ‘I lifted the box on to the floor, knelt down and removed the top exercise book. It had a red cover and a tiny white label with the number 31. I opened it and the first words that I read were “The Body in the Library – people – Mavis Carr- Laurette King.” I turned over pages at random. “Death on the Nile- points to be brought in… The Hollow – Inspector comes to Sir Henry…”

‘All these tantalising headings were in just one notebook and there were over 70 more still stacked demurely in their unprepossessing box.’

John knew then how he would spend the rest of the weekend and, as it transpired, the next four year of his life.

Perhaps his most dramatic discovery was a notebook containing two previously unpublished short stories featuring Hercule Poirot, which he later included at the end of his book about the secret notebooks.

Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran is well worth reading to see how the Queen of Crime worked and how she noted down her ideas.

There are new and used copies available on Amazon.


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Saturday, November 14, 2020

On the shelf

The Body Parts in the Library arrives at a library!


Partners in crime
There are many significant milestones when you write a novel, such as completing the first draft, sending the revised final version out for publication and receiving a printed copy to hold in your hands for the first time.

But you can’t know the names of everyone who buys your book and find out what they think about it having read it. Once it’s out there you have lost control over it to some extent, a bit like when your child starts school for the first time. 

So it was a lovely moment for me today to see my latest novel, The Body Parts in the Library, on the shelf in a library for the first time. And it was particularly special for me because it was the library where I have a part-time job.

The Body Parts in the Library is a cosy crime novel about strange things happening in a village library being run by volunteers after the long-serving staff have been made redundant. Published in September this year, it introduces a new detective duo, the Library Ladies.

I have always been a big supporter of libraries and am now a champion of the role of the Library Assistant, which I hope comes across in the novel.

New in stock

I took a photograph of The Body Parts in the Library on the shelf next to another of my books, Death in the High City, which was published in 2014.

However, it didn’t stay on the shelf for long. We are operating a Click and Collect service at the moment and when we received a request for ten crime novels, we couldn’t resist popping it into the bag.

The Body Parts in the Library is now in stock at Shepshed, Loughborough and Ashby libraries in Leicestershire. It is also available for sale on Amazon as a Kindle e-book or a paperback.


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Tuesday, November 3, 2020

First novel published by Agatha Christie is 100 years old

The Mysterious Affair at Styles has now been entertaining readers for a century

My copy of The Mysterious Affair at  Styles was published in 1954
My copy of The Mysterious Affair at 
Styles
was published in 1954
After suffering six successive rejections, Agatha Christie’s luck finally turned when her detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in October 1920.

The story is set in England in the middle of the First World War and introduces what was to become Agatha’s series detective, the Belgian policeman, Hercule Poirot.

The novel was first published in the United States by John Lane and then in the UK in January 1921 by The Bodley Head, Lane’s British publishing company.

Poirot has come to England as a refugee and is living in a village in Essex, thanks to the kindness of a rich woman, Emily Inglethorp, who lives at the local manor house, Styles Court. The novel also introduces Poirot’s sidekick, Arthur Hastings, who has been invalided home from the Front and is invited by Mrs Inglethorp’s stepson, John Cavendish, to stay at Styles.

When Mrs Inglethorp is killed, Poirot says he owes her a debt of gratitude for helping him to have a new life in England and vows to use all his detective skills to solve the mystery of her death. Hastings has met him before and happily introduces him to the members of the family living at Styles.

As an Agatha Christie fan, I read The Mysterious Affair at Styles many years ago, along with some of her other novels, but I read them all in no particular order.

When I realised The Mysterious Affair at Styles had now celebrated its centenary I decided to re-read it because it was Agatha’s first published book and I wanted to see what I thought of it now.

The first thing that struck me was that she lets Hastings tell the story in the manner of Dr Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories. It works well and is a device that more authors might consider trying. It helps her mislead the reader because Hastings fails to understand the hints Poirot gives him and at times even draws the wrong conclusion from some of the things Poirot says to him.

Agatha Christie as a young woman
Agatha Christie as a
young woman
My copy of The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published by Pan Books Ltd in 1954 by arrangement with John Lane of The Bodley Head Ltd.

I was intrigued by the fact that a plan of the first floor at Styles is inserted into the middle of the text on page 26 and a diagram of Mrs Inglethorp’s bedroom into the middle of page 38.

A rough drawing of a charred scrap of paper bearing the handwritten letters ‘ll and’  is inserted into the text of page 42 and a picture of words scrawled on a crumpled envelope into the text of page 53.

I noticed some repetitions in the book, for example Hastings twice observes that the maid Dorcas is a fine example of a good, old-fashioned servant, but then you have to remember it was Agatha’s first published novel.

Dorcas describes how the young people in the house enjoy having dressing-up evenings and putting on costumes from the dressing-up box in the attic and using techniques to darken their skin so they can dress up as ‘foreigners.’

Agatha shows how people thought about other nationalities at that time, in the middle of a terrible war, when Dorcas says of Poirot:

‘A very nice gentleman he is sir. And quite a different class from them two detectives from London, what goes prying about, and asking questions. I don’t hold with foreigners as a rule, but from what the newspapers says I make out as how these brave Belgies isn’t the ordinary run of foreigners and certainly he’s a most polite spoken gentleman.’

According to the blurb on the inside flap of the dust jacket of the first edition, The Mysterious Affair at Styles came about because of a bet Agatha had agreed with her sister, Madge, that ‘she could not compose a detective novel in which the reader would not be able to spot the murderer, although having access to the same clues as the detective.’

The text of the book included some  helpful illustrations for readers
The text of the book included some 
helpful illustrations for readers
It was acknowledged at the time that Agatha won the bet and that the plot was clever and the clues well placed. It came down to a shattered coffee cup, an old envelope, a fragment of fabric and a splash of candle grease, but it was enough for Hercule Poirot to work out who was the murderer.

It launched Agatha’s writing career and she subsequently named her own house Styles. Hercule Poirot went on to become one of the most famous characters in detective fiction and featured in 47 of her novels and collections of short stories. When Agatha told the story of his final case in Curtain, she set the novel at Styles again.

At number six, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was one of the first ten books published by Penguin Books when it started up in 1935. The novel was later adapted for television, radio and the theatre.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles marked the start of a brilliant career for Agatha, who wrote 66 detective novels in total. She remains to this day the best-selling writer of all time.

While new writers can’t hope to surpass her achievement, or even equal it, her success can at least prove inspirational.


Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Don’t mention the V word

Have library assistants become an endangered species?

Libraries have been under pressure for several
years because of economic cuts
I have always been a huge supporter of libraries, having been taken to one from being a small child, and I have enjoyed borrowing, reading and returning books from many different libraries over the years.

For the last seven years I have worked as a part-time library assistant in a village library and this has turned me into an enthusiastic champion of the role of the library assistant.

I have seen at close quarters the wonderful job done by many of my colleagues when providing service to their customers and I have been amazed by their dedication and hard work.

But in the last few years, economic cuts have led to a lot of library assistants being made redundant and replaced by unpaid volunteers. Following on from that, other library assistants have had their hours cut because the introduction of so-called ‘smart technology’ has enabled customers to use the library when there are no staff present and to serve themselves.

But, as one of my customers once put it so eloquently: ‘A library without library assistants is just a room full of books.’

This sorry situation has provided the inspiration for my latest crime novel, The Body Parts in the Library, which tells the story of a village library that has been taken over by volunteers.

My latest novel was inspired by my  experiences as a library assistant
My latest novel was inspired by my 
experiences as a library assistant
The Body Parts in the Library is the first in what is planned to be a series of Library Ladies Mysteries, featuring detective duo Sallie Parker and Jo Pudsey, both library assistants who have recently been made redundant after many years of dedicated service and who have every reason to feel aggrieved.

A group of volunteers has taken over the running of their library and when one of them is the victim of a prank, the Library Ladies, as they are known locally, are immediately suspected and find themselves shunned by most of the village.

Determined to clear their names, they try to find out who was really responsible.

But after further bizarre incidents, the story takes a sinister turn as a shocking discovery is made in the library. The Library Ladies set out to conduct their own investigation to make sure the culprit is exposed so that life in the peaceful south Yorkshire village of Upper Mickle can return to normal.

The Body Parts in the Library was published in September 2020 and is available from Amazon as a paperback and as a Kindle e-book.

It should appeal to anyone who enjoys the 'cosy' crime fiction genre, or who happens to love libraries.


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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

New writers should take inspiration from Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie had her first novel published when she was 30 years old
Agatha Christie had her first novel
published when she was 30 years old
Imagine being the best-selling novelist of all time. Imagine being such a popular and successful novelist that more than 40 years after your death your books are still being borrowed from libraries and film and television adaptations of the stories are constantly being made.

Earlier this month it was the 130th anniversary of the birth of crime writer Agatha Christie, which prompted me to contemplate her amazing success.

To mark the occasion, I put together a display of her books in the crime section and large print crime section of the library where I work.

I had read that Guinness World Records list Agatha as the best-selling fiction writer of all time because her novels have sold more than two billion copies.

For writers just starting out, such as myself, this kind of success is mind blowing.

Agatha wrote a total of 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections. Her fictional detectives, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, are familiar to people even if they have never read a detective novel.

Library display of Agatha Christie books
Agatha Christie's books remain hugely
popular with library users
But here’s a bit of information that should encourage new writers: Agatha was unsuccessful to begin with and suffered six consecutive rejections. If she’d given up at that point the world would never have had the huge body of work that has entertained so many millions of people over the years.

The turning point came for Agatha when her novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in 1920, when she was 30 years of age. She never looked back.

Agatha’s final novel, Sleeping Murder, featuring Miss Marple, was published in 1976, the year of the novelist’s death.

The lesson to be learned by other writers from Agatha’s life and career is that they should not give up. Success might come, but only if you keep writing.


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Wednesday, September 16, 2020

How today’s writers can still learn from Anne Brontë

The Parsonage in Haworth, where the Brontë sisters grew up, is now a museum celebrating their lives
The Parsonage in Haworth, where the Brontë sisters
grew up, is now a museum celebrating their lives
I have always loved visiting the homes of famous writers in the hope that seeing where they lived and produced their work might somehow inspire me to become a better writer.

When I visited the Brontë Parsonage Museum at Haworth I was fascinated to see where Charlotte, Emily, Anne and their brother, Branwell, grew up and did some of their best writing.

But it was purely by chance that I came to visit Anne Brontë’s grave in Scarborough one summer.

I was in the seaside resort with my husband who was there for work. I used to spend the day sightseeing while he was covering a cricket match for a newspaper.

We were staying on the North Cliff near the Castle and close to the churchyard of St Mary’s where Anne Brontë is buried.

There were signs directing visitors to the churchyard and it seemed almost discourteous not to go and pay my respects. The grave was easy to find close to the entrance and was marked by an additional stone, which had been recently added by the Brontë Society, correcting the author’s age at the time of her death.

Anne Brontë was just 29 when she died

Anne Brontë's grave in the churchyard of St Mary's Church in Scarborough
Anne Brontë's grave in the churchyard
of St Mary's Church in Scarborough
Anne Brontë was 29 years of age when she passed away in Scarborough, not 28 as the original headstone had maintained for more than 160 years. As someone who is inclined to put things off in life, I found it sobering to reflect on how much Anne had managed to achieve in such a short time in the world. Ironically, considering she was a writer, Anne’s original headstone bore several errors. When Charlotte Brontë visited it three years after her sister’s death she had it refaced, but Anne’s age was still not corrected. The error remained on the headstone to mislead the world until 2013.

Anne was the youngest child in her family, who was born to a clergyman and his wife on 17 January 1820. They moved to Haworth soon after her birth but her mother died before her second birthday.

Her eldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth died at the ages of 11 and 10 respectively, after becoming ill at boarding school.

Charlotte and Emily were removed from the school and along with their brother, Branwell, the three girls were educated at home by their father and aunt.

Sisters drew inspiration from surroundings

There was little money and the sisters had to do their share of the domestic chores but they had access to their father’s books and periodicals, which they read avidly. There were few toys or treats, but a gift from their father to Branwell of a set of miniature soldiers led to the children creating a rich, imaginary world. Anne would have been six years old when she helped her brother and sisters write plays and stories about the lives of the soldiers. These were recorded in tiny, hand-written books that they produced for the soldiers to ‘read’.

When Charlotte went away to school again, Emily and Anne created another fantasy world of their own and continued to invent characters and stories for it until well into adulthood.

Nowadays we live far more comfortably and have many possessions and sources of entertainment, but these can also serve as distractions and stop us achieving things. Having so little in life made the Brontë children become inventive and they also drew inspiration from the moorland scenery and the architecture of the buildings near where they lived.

Governess work was sole career option

Charlottë Bronte found work as a teacher
Charlottë Bronte found work
as a teacher
Charlotte eventually found work as a teacher and took first Emily, and then Anne, to the school with her as pupils to improve their education. This was because the only career option available to the sisters was working as governesses if they did not get married.

They all eventually found suitable situations with families, but in her first post Anne found the children particularly hard to control. She was eventually dismissed, which was traumatic for her, but she learned from her bad experiences and was able to reproduce them in her first novel, Agnes Grey.

Her second post as a governess proved more successful and the family took her on their annual holiday to Scarborough each year. She fell in love with the seaside resort, which inspired many of the locations in her novels.

When the Brontë sisters’ aunt died, they used some of the money they inherited from her to have their poems published under the pseudonyms, Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.

Only two copies of the volume of poetry were ever sold, although Anne later succeeded in having some of her poems published in magazines.

Charlotte's first novel was rejected

But the sisters were not deterred and turned to novel writing instead. Amazingly, Charlotte’s first novel, the Professor, was rejected by every publisher she sent it to. She never let this put her off and started on her second novel, Jane Eyre, immediately. This was eventually accepted for publication and became an instant success.

Emily’s novel, Wuthering Heights and Anne’s first book, Agnes Grey, were both accepted straight away. Charlotte criticised the terms they were offered as they each had to contribute £50, which was to be refunded when a sufficient number of copies had been sold. History has proved the investment to be worthwhile, so take heart, all modern-day self publishers

Although ‘lady readers’ were warned against Wuthering Heights and Anne’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, because of their depictions of wild characters and violent scenes, the books continued to sell well.

Anne is now believed to be the first ‘feminist’ author, but she never received the recognition she deserved during her lifetime.

Branwell died suddenly in 1848 at the age of 31 and then both Emily and Anne were found to be suffering from tuberculosis. Emily died three months after Branwell at the age of 30.

Aware she was dying, Anne decided to visit Scarborough one last time, hoping the sea air would help her. In May 1849, accompanied by Charlotte and a friend, she travelled to Scarborough, where she died four days later.

Odds always stacked against Anne Brontë

Anne Brontë was determined to persevere with her writing
Anne Brontë was determined
to persevere with her writing
Charlotte decided to ‘lay the flower where it had fallen’ and buried Anne in a churchyard close to the sea.

Many people writing today may not be as talented or inventive as Anne Brontë, but if they are lucky enough to live long enough and prepared to work hard enough they at least have the chance to improve their skills. Ironically, we have easier lives than people in the 19th century, but perhaps this has made it harder for us to be disciplined or have the will to persevere with writing.

The odds were stacked against Anne Brontë as a writer from the moment she was born. As a woman she was considered to be a second class citizen and her writing was not taken seriously until she submitted it under a pseudonym. As the youngest in the family she was patronised by the other children and expected to be submissive.

But she was quietly determined and immensely self-disciplined and in her 29 years she managed to write two good novels and some powerful poetry.

In today’s climate of redundancy, women who have been pushed aside in the workplace and made to lose confidence should take heart from her and be inspired by her because if they are lucky to live long enough and prepared to work hard enough they may yet still achieve their ambitions.

It is claimed that Charlotte Brontë would not allow the reprinting of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall after her sister’s death and, lying in her cold grave in Scarborough, there was nothing Anne could do about it.

But like the error on her headstone, this was put right in time and Anne is now seen as not just a minor Brontë, but a major literary figure in her own right.

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Friday, May 1, 2020

How a crime novel can transport me to Italy during lockdown

As someone who loves Italy and likes to travel there as often as possible, I have been disappointed - as have millions of others - about having to cancel my planned trip there later this month.

But these are unprecedented times and this global pandemic has wreaked havoc in people’s lives in many different ways. I consider myself lucky that the only deprivation I am suffering is not seeing my friends and extended family.

Venice is the setting for Donna Leon's Italian crime novels.
(Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)
But one benefit lockdown has given us all, is more time to read and the next best thing to going to Italy is reading about it.

I enjoy reading crime fiction and over the years it has been a real treat to discover good crime novels set in interesting locations in Italy.

Among my favourite authors whose crime novels are in English and set in Italy are Michael Dibdin, Donna Leon, Timothy Holme and Magdalen Nabb.

But thanks to good translators, we are also now able to read the works of Italian crime writers.

The Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri is perhaps the most famous and one of my favourites, but I have also enjoyed discovering the works of Michele Giuttari, Valerio Varesi and Marco Vichi to name but a few. It is always a joy to discover less well-known writers, as well as writers not normally known for books set in Italy, who have chosen to use the country as a backdrop for just one novel.

The range of crime novels set in Italy and the variety of locations they feature is constantly increasing.

Translations of crime novels by Italian writers are now much more readily available, for the first time making these books accessible to people who can’t read Italian, so we suddenly have an exciting and rapidly growing sub genre of crime fiction.

Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano series set in Sicily has now been translated into 30 different languages and a dubbed version of the television adaptation has been shown on British television, which has helped to increase the interest in and demand for crime novels with an Italian setting.

What makes Italy a good setting for the genre?

Reading crime novels in translation is fascinating for us because it offers us a window on day-to-day life in Italy, enabling us to see how people spend their time and what their preoccupations are as well as what wine they choose when they go to their local bar.

It has made me wonder why Italy makes such a good setting for this genre.

I like Italy for the weather, the scenery, the architecture, the art, the culture and let’s not forget the food and the wine.

Italy is renowned for its beautiful scenery.
(Photo by Aliona & Pasha on Pexels.com)
But a good crime novel set in Italy should be more than just an opportunity for armchair travel by the reader. The setting has to play an important part in the novel.

A lot of writers are fascinated with Italy’s justice system and the much talked about corruption in the country because it can give them more freedom when they are plotting their novels.

Italy provides writers with the opportunity for ambiguity and non-resolution at the end of the book, whereas readers have come to expect a credible, tidy finish at the end of a book set in Britain. For example, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers often used to allude to the fact that the murderer would hang at the end of their books because at the time they were written they thought this would provide a satisfactory resolution for the reader.

But there is often no neat conclusion at the end of a crime novel set in Italy. Andrea Camilleri has said that in Italy it can take years to find someone guilty of a crime and then there is often no appropriate punishment at the end of it all. Italians are big believers in hidden and ulterior motives and even when someone is arrested for a crime they think this won’t necessarily be the end of it. I came across the word dietrologia for the first time in a Michael Dibdin novel. It means the facts behind the facts, or conspiracy theory, and it is something Italians have no difficulty believing in.

This makes Italy an ideal background for modern writers who want to make the investigation of lesser importance and concentrate more on the personalities of the victim, witnesses and investigators that they have created.

Italian crime writers love an outsider

The perspective of the outsider is a popular device in crime fiction and so having a foreign visitor in Italy as a central character often works well. It enables the protagonist to cast a cold eye on the society that surrounds him and his detachment is often the key to his success. This can also work well if the character is Italian. For example with Commissario Aurelio Zen in Michael Dibdin’s novels there is a reason he feels like an outsider in Rome, which the reader eventually finds out about.

In some novels Italian police officers are working far away from their home town for operational reasons, such as Magdalen Nabb’s Maresciallo Guarnaccia, a Sicilian in Florence and Timothy Holme’s Commissario Peroni, a Neapolitan in northern Italy.

Magdalen Nabb's novels feature a Sicilian
 policeman in Florence.
(Photo by Alex Zhernovyi on Pexels.com)
Modern crime novelists have almost become travel writers, because they describe their settings so well. This is because to the writer the location is a character in the story in its own right.

At the very least a modern crime novel set in Italy can take you on a trip to an unfamiliar city. Crime writers tell it the way it is. Unlike most travel writers they will tell you things you didn’t know and maybe would prefer not to know about a particular place.

They will tell you about day-to-day life, what people talk about in the bars, how the place smells, how the transport system works, or doesn’t work, in some cases.

If you are lucky, as a little bonus, they will also tell you what dishes to order for lunch and the best restaurants to go to for an authentic experience of the local cuisine, as in Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti novels set in Venice.

But good crime writers do not forget the rules of the genre and that plot is of paramount importance.

Readers expect to be provided with clues, suspects, and motives. They want to be entertained by a story that allows them to sit in an armchair and try to work out the solution. The characters have to be plausible and their motivation for what they do needs to be credible.

Most of all, the book needs to have an authentic background that the reader can believe in, which is why the use of the setting is so important.

The origins of crime fiction

The crime, or detective, novel dates back to the mid-19th century. One of the earliest detective novels, The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe, was published in 1841 and then Wilkie Collins wrote The Woman in White in 1860.

In 1887 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave the genre fresh impetus by creating Sherlock Holmes. His skill in detection consisted of logical deduction based on minute details that have escaped the notice of others.

The classical detective novel was at the height of its popularity in Britain between about 1920 and 1940, the era of four famous women writers, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.

Their novels provided entertainment that relied upon the reader’s interest in a logical pursuit of clues honestly put before them.

Books by these ladies are still regularly borrowed from public libraries and made into films and yet publishers and literary critics consistently try to claim that this form of the genre has had its day.

The contemporary crime novel, or detective novel, shifts the emphasis from the clues to the characters involved in the story. It is the unveiling of the different layers of personality that lies at the root of the plot rather than just logical deduction.

The personality of the detective is a vital ingredient as it is he or she whose insights produce the solution to the puzzle.

Writers who achieved this transition include P D James, Ruth Rendell, H R F Keating, Colin Dexter and Reginald Hill.

Crime novels in Italy are known as gialli because they traditionally had yellow covers
Crime novels in Italy are known as gialli because
they traditionally had yellow covers
Their books are more likely to involve professional policemen, who carry out thorough detective work rather than just relying on sudden flashes of intuition,

In Italy, people call a crime story un romanzo giallo, because since the 1930s crime novels usually had yellow covers, giallo being the Italian for yellow.

The earliest Italian mystery novels are thought to be Il Mio Cadavere (My Corpse) and La Cieca di Sorrento (The Blind Woman from Sorrento) both written by Francesco Mastriani in 1852.

Other Italian writers then began experimenting with the genre and in 1910 there was an important development when The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes were published in Il Corriere della Sera, the Milan newspaper.

In 1929, publishers Mondadori established their libri gialli series and novels by famous foreign writers, including Agatha Christie, were published in Italian. The first Italian writer to be published in the series was Alessandro Varaldo with Il Sette Bello (Seven is Beautiful) in 1931 featuring police inspector Ascanio Bonich. This is considered to be the first Italian detective story.

The fascist Government asked Mondadori to ensure that at least 20 per cent of its literary production was by Italian writers and as a result more Italians started to write gialli and to imitate foreign authors.

But by 1941 Mussolini had decided he didn’t like the genre and told Mondadori to stop publishing gialli for moral reasons. He thought they would corrupt young people.

After the war Mondadori began publishing foreign writers again, but gradually more Italian crime writers began to emerge and now hundreds of Italian crime writers are regularly published, including best selling novelists such as Andrea Camilleri. Sadly, he died last year, but he has left us the wonderful gift of Montalbano, who, like Sherlock Holmes, often notices the little details that other people miss.


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