The Bleak World of Italian Noir

By Glenn HarperAugust 22, 2014

Escape by Dominique Manotti
By My Hand by Maurizio De Giovanni

IF YOU LOOK for noir in an Italian bookstore, you’ll find it under the heading “gialli,” which means “yellows,” because the genre arrived in Italy in the 1930s with a series of translations of British and American crime novels with yellow covers. The gialli were published by Mondadori, beginning with writers like S. S. Van Dine and Anna Katharine Green, and later moving on to Raymond Chandler and Cornell Woolrich. During those years, indigenous Italian crime writing was discouraged by Mussolini as incompatible with the official image of an orderly Fascist society; but after the fall of Il Duce gialli became a vital means of portraying the contradictions and difficulties of life in Italy, both in pulp fiction and literary styles.

Two newly translated crime novels (published in their original languages in 2011 and 2013) use the form to revisit dark and violent eras of Italy’s past. Maurizio De Giovanni’s By My Hand continues the series of novels in which he has been exploring the particular discrepancy between ideology and the reality under Fascism set in Naples in 1931. De Giovanni’s series features Commissario Ricciardi, a detective whose outlook is colored by a macabre clairvoyance. French novelist Dominique Manotti’s stand-alone novel Escape has taken on the riskier task of portraying the more recent history of the final stages of the anni di piombo, the “years of lead,” a term coined by journalists to describe the bombings, kidnappings, assassinations, and reprisals committed by and in reaction to Italy’s violent radical political movements from the late 1960s to the 1980s.

In De Giovanni’s stories organized crime and totalitarian politics are constant presences. Yet the crimes he investigates are usually rooted in unhappy families, jealousy, and greed, reflecting Ricciardi’s observation that “hunger and love, and their various, countless derivations, were the root causes of every murder.” The Ricciardi novels are deeply melancholy, not least because of the Neapolitan detective’s specific relation to the dead: he sees and hears the last moments of the victims of sudden violence (and not only those relevant to the case he is investigating):

Along the street, the crowd of the living was punctuated here and there by the dead. A young man who’d fallen from a scaffold, his neck broken, who called out for his mother; a man who had been beaten to death, and who inveighed against a certain Michele through his shattered jaw; a woman run over by a car in the middle of the road, who recited like a prayer the list of items she was going to buy, while blood from her leg, shorn clean off, pumped out into the empty air.

The voices of the dead are a lonely burden for Ricciardi, motivating him to seek justice for them but also reinforcing a sense of his irreparable separation from all those who cannot see or hear these gruesome scenes.

This talent is not a supernatural gimmick. His clairvoyant gift (or curse) seems less like second sight and more like a deep empathy with the dead, as well as a poetic device employed very effectively by the author. The dead don’t tell the detective who killed them: they only convey their final thoughts and emotions. Ricciardi and his assistant, Brigadier Maione, still have to crisscross the city to investigate the crime. The Commissario sees himself as a watcher, hardly participating in life on his own behalf, but he is also a consummate listener, attuned to the voices and dialects of the city’s residents, those involved in the crimes as well as the bystanders.

The first four Ricciardi novels were set in successive seasons of 1931. (Year IX of the Fascist era: they used Roman numerals to suggest a link to the Roman Empire.) The fifth and latest, By My Hand, shows Naples at Christmas of that year. The Camorra (the Neapolitan mafia) is not in evidence for the moment, leaving three levels of Neapolitan culture on display: the city of wealth, the city of poverty, and the city of perfect Fascist cohesion maintained by ideology, threat, and surveillance (not to mention the city of the dead, always visible to Ricciardi). All of the citizens, even the Fascists, are involved in the particularly Neapolitan rituals of the season, including shopping at the markets, making the preparations for the feast, and, most importantly, creating the elaborate and elaborately symbolic manger scenes — not just the familiar crèche but elaborate allegorical scenes including a temple and a tavern, an oven and a bridge, a market with 12 symbolic figures, and more — which every family builds and maintains with the help of craftsmen within the family or from the market.

De Giovanni provides monologues from several of those craftsmen who are also, in fact or in their imaginations, involved in the particularly brutal murder of a husband and wife. The Commissario first sees the body of the woman with her throat cut, and:

Some six feet from the woman’s dead body, standing in the dying light of the day, the same woman was smiling in his direction, eyes downcast as she welcomed him to her home with the pleasure of a perfect hostess. She was murmuring: Hat and gloves?

The man’s corpse is covered in knife wounds, and only the Commissario can see and hear his last moments: “He was saying over and over: I don’t owe a thing, not a thing. Grim-faced, eyebrows knit, teeth clenched, glaring furiously: I don’t owe a thing, not a thing.” The words spoken by these macabre visions are powerful in their lack of theatricality: the murder victims are not shouting or screaming in pain, they are embedded in their ordinary lives even at the moment of death. The male victim is an officer in the Fascist militia that controls the port, a position that affords him the opportunity to extract bribes from anyone seeking to make a living from the sea, and providing the police with a more straightforward clue to the possible motivations behind the crime.

The private lives of Commissario Ricciardi and Brigadier Maione are also important threads in the story. The murder of Maione’s son, also a policeman, has been a background element of the whole series, but in By My Hand the Brigadier finds out that the man convicted of the crime may have been protecting the real killer, creating a burden of revenge and justice for Maione. The melancholy Commissario, on the other hand, is at the center of a romantic triangle that doesn’t hold much promise for either the rich widow (a character in the first of De Giovanni’s books) who fancies him or a young neighbor of Ricciardi’s whom he watches with longing as she does her needlework in the window opposite his.

Because of the season, the abject poverty of the fishermen who become suspects in the murders, and the ghostly voices of the dead, the story has a bit of a Dickensian character, but By My Hand is entirely Neapolitan and embedded firmly in 1931. There are Christmas Eve fish markets, figurari (manger-scene craftsmen), and zampognari (seasonal bagpipers) in the streets, along with the militias and secret police controlling everything from shipping to personal information. De Giovanni presents another segment of the panorama of Neapolitan life that he has been showing us throughout the series, along with a crime story that presents no easy answers. Yet By My Hand at least offers a bit of seasonal solace.

Dominique Manotti presents a different kind of Italian panorama in Escape, dealing with revolutionary violence, political accommodation, conspiracy, and exile in the late 1980s. Each of Manotti’s novels (Escape is the fifth to be translated into English) uses a specific nexus of history and politics to ground the story. For Escape, that background is the decline of the Italian radical movements at the end of the anni del piombo, an era of assassinations and bombings by the Red Brigades and numerous other groups on the left as well as the right (and even by groups within the government itself). The novel is mainly set among some Italian left-wing radicals who have fled to Paris to avoid persecution or prosecution by the Italian government.

The novel begins with Filippo, a Roman street kid and petty criminal (not unlike the scugnizzi, the feral urchins who run through the streets in De Giovanni’s Naples) who has ended up in jail. His cellmate, Carlo, is a Red Brigade leader whose tales of the revolutionary struggles and the movement’s utopian dreams are seductive to the impressionable young man: “In Carlo’s life, the intensity of conviction and the violence of hope had swept everything away, smashed everything. And Filippo contemplated the wreckage, fascinated.” Carlo has planned an escape that doesn’t include his young cellmate, but partly due to his fascination with his mentor and partly fearing he will be accused of being an accessory, Filippo impulsively joins the jailbreak. Afterward, Carlo dumps Filippo as quickly as possible, offering to help him only by providing a contact in exile in Paris, his former lover, Lisa, saying, “If things get too tough here in Italy, go over to France,” which is what Filippo does after he hears that Carlo was killed in an attempted bank robbery.

But after Lisa sets him up with an apartment and a job as a night watchman, Filippo feels abandoned by her and whiles away the long nights at work by remembering Carlo’s stories of political struggle, camaraderie, and violence. Filippo begins writing, reinventing his story, amplifying and romanticizing his connection to Carlo and portraying himself as a key figure in the aborted bank robbery. He shows the manuscript to his landlady, who introduces him to a publisher, and his success as a writer and a celebrity criminal with the French public implicates him in an increasingly dense network of political and literary jealousies, conspiracies, and possible extradition on murder charges. Lisa sees Filippo as a pawn in “a sting set up to discredit the entire far left and make us look like a bunch of dangerous common-law criminals.” For Lisa and the other exiles, to lose their image as revolutionaries is to lose not only the struggle but also their political identities.

Escape presents segments of Filippo’s novel-within-the-novel (also titled Escape) as well as a third-person narrative that shifts from Filippo’s point of view to that of his landlady (who is fascinated by the young man) to that of Lisa (who despises Filippo for his portrait of Carlo that doesn’t fit her political and personal agenda). Manotti moves effectively among the characters and the literary and political communities that support them and provides a satirical view of both the French publishing world and the fractious community of Italian émigré radicals. Filippo himself, though, remains a naive young man so self-absorbed that he can’t even see, much less manage, the consequences of the link he has forged between himself and the violence of both terrorist groups and counterterrorist conspiracies. With his central role in his novel, everyone assumes, despite his denial, that he is in fact the escapee, criminal, and terrorist he portrays himself as in the book. When confronted with articles in the Italian press demanding his prosecution, he says, “As a writer I felt a fraud, I needed some sort of endorsement, and I’m getting it from Italy, I couldn’t dream of more.” Ultimately it is Lisa who recognizes the nature of the power that Filippo unleashed but couldn’t control: the power of authorship. Manotti suggests that who gets to define Carlo, the mostly absent spirit at the center of the novel, is not only a literary but also a political matter.

The events and conspiracies surrounding the rise and decline of the violent left- and right-wing movements in post–World War II Italy have been the subject or the background of numerous Italian novels and films in recent years, but Manotti’s satire provides a particularly vivid portrait of the Italian left, with the secret campaign against them by the right and by the government omnipresent but mostly offstage. Her displacement from the subject, as a French author and historian (her academic specialty is 19th-century economic history), gives Escape a satirical distance from the contentious subject, but the comedy effectively highlights her portrait of the violence with which the revolutionaries and the counterrevolutionaries assaulted one another.

Neither By My Hand nor Escape is purely noir. Both draw some of their impact from the pessimism and resignation inherent in that genre, but they approach this darkness from opposite directions. At the center of De Giovanni’s very dark view of Naples, seen through Ricciardi’s tortured but sympathetic eyes, there is a melancholy sweetness: even some of the most miserably poor characters find solace in their families and in the season’s cultural rituals. On the other hand, at the center of Manotti’s satirical portrait of Italian radicals and Parisian émigrés, there is a bitter darkness: ruthless, shadowy forces that will stop at nothing to achieve their aims. De Giovanni intensifies the bleakness of his story by offering glimpses of redemption, and Manotti emphasizes the menace of a grim threat by keeping it at the margins of the story. At a moment when some classic crime novels based on violent incidents of Italian history from the 1960s to the 1990s are coming into print in the US again or for the first time (including Magdalen Nabb’s The Monster of Florence, Giorgio Scerbanenco’s Traitors to All, and Timothy Williams’s Converging Parallels), Manotti and De Giovanni demonstrate the continuing literary potential of the bleak passages of Italian history.


Glenn Harper is the editor of Sculpture magazine and reviews crime fiction at

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Glenn Harper is the former editor of Sculpture magazine and reviews crime fiction at


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