How a crime novel can transport me to Italy during lockdown

green metal post in front of the body of ocean with boats during twilight

Venice is the setting for Donna Leon’s Italian crime novels. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.
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.

foggy hills

Italy is renowned for its beautiful scenery. Photo by Aliona & Pasha on Pexels.

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, but 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.

brown and white concrete building

Magdalen Nabb’s novels feature a Sicilian policeman in Florence. Photo by Alex Zhernovyi on Pexels.com

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.
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.
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.
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.
In 1929 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.

The Shooting in Sorrento

A new Butler and Bartorelli mystery

At last, my second novel, The Shooting in Sorrento, has been published on Amazon.

I feel a big sense of achievement now I have produced another Butler and Bartorelli mystery, the sequel to Death in the High City, which was set in Bergamo in Lombardy.

The book features journalist Kate Butler and her partner, Steve Bartorelli, a retired Detective Chief Inspector. They are in Sorrento for the wedding of the daughter of one of Steve’s Italian cousins.

When tragedy strikes an English family staying at their hotel, Kate feels she has to help them, having already become friends with the mother, Janice, who is a woman of about her own age.

Steve is distracted by meeting up with Italian relatives he has not seen since he was a child and is also wary of becoming too involved with the family because two of his cousins are senior officers in the Polizia di Stato.

Kate is determined to get justice for her new English friends and joins forces with another visitor to Sorrento to investigate, after it becomes clear the Italian police aren’t looking much further than the English family.

The book will delight readers who know and love Sorrento as much of the action in the novel takes place in the ancient streets in the centre of the resort and at locations out along the Sorrentine peninsula.

Kate’s enquiries cause her to wander the narrow streets that run parallel to the Corso Italia and take her down to the beach at Marina di Puolo, but she ends up putting herself in danger when her sleuthing gets her too close to the truth.

I have been able to indulge in my fascination for Italian culture by writing about Sorrento’s colourful history and describing the local wine and food specialities for which the resort has become famous.

The Shooting in Sorrento is believed to be the first British crime novel set in Sorrento.
It is available to buy in paperback or as a Kindle edition from Amazon.

For more information about Sorrento visit www.bestofsorrento.com.

Death in the High City first anniversary


Successful year for Bergamo’s first English crime novel

Death in the High City, the first British detective novel to be set in Bergamo, has had an exciting first year.
The novel, which was published in Kindle format on Amazon 12 months ago today, has sold copies in the UK, Italy, America, Australia and Canada. A paperback version of Death in the High City was published in July 2014.

Death in the High City, Colleoni Chapel, Bergamo.

Death in the High City, pictured against the backdrop of the Colleoni Chapel in Bergamo

I have had some heart warming emails and messages about the book from readers both in the UK and abroad and I have been delighted with the level of interest in my first novel.
In October 2014 I was a guest at the fifth anniversary celebrations of Bergamo Su e Giu, a group of independent tour guides in the city. I was invited to present Death in the High City to an audience in San Pellegrino Terme and sign copies of the book and also made an appearance on Bergamo TV to talk about the novel with presenter Teo Mangione.
In November the book was purchased by Leicestershire Libraries and is now in stock at Loughborough, Shepshed, Ashby de la Zouch, Coalville, Castle Donington and Kegworth Libraries and is going out on loan regularly.
In April this year I was invited to Bergamo again to present the novel to a group of 80 Italian teachers of English and to sign copies. I made a second appearance on Bergamo TV and also formally presented a copy of Death in the High City to the Biblioteca Civica (Civic Library) in Piazza Vecchia, a location that is featured in the novel itself.

Death in the High City book signing in Bergamo with Val Culley

Signing copies of Death in the High City for Italian teachers of English in Bergamo in April

Death in the High City centres on the investigation into the death of an English woman who was staying in the Città Alta while writing a biography of the composer Gaetano Donizetti.
The novel is the first of a series to feature the characters of Kate Butler, a freelance journalist, and Steve Bartorelli, a Detective Chief Inspector, who is of partly Italian descent and has just retired from the English police.
The victim had been living in an apartment in Bergamo ’s Città Alta and much of the action takes place within the walls of the upper town.
The local police do not believe there is enough evidence to open a murder enquiry and so Kate Butler, who is the victim’s cousin, arrives in Bergamo to try to get some answers about her death.
Kate visits many of the places in the city with Donizetti connections and her enquiries even take her out to Lago d’Iseo and into the countryside around San Pellegrino Terme. But after her own life is threatened and there has been another death in the Città Alta, her lover, Steve Bartorelli, joins her to help unravel the mystery and trap the killer. The reader is able to go along for the ride and enjoy Bergamo’s wonderful architecture and scenery while savouring the many descriptions in the novel of local food and wine.
The novel will be of interest to anyone who enjoys the ‘cosy’ crime fiction genre or likes detective novels with an Italian setting.
Death in the High City by Val Culley is available on Amazon.com.

Death in the High City is now available in Leicestershire libraries

It was a proud moment seeing my novel, Death in the High City, on display in a public library for the first time.

The book, looking slightly unreal in its plastic jacket, was on display on the counter of Shepshed Library in Leicestershire.

Death in the High City

Exciting new local author!

It is also in stock at Loughborough, Coalville and Ashby-de-la-Zouch, libraries close to where I live in Leicestershire.

When I left the library, I felt like an anxious mother leaving her child at school for the first time and wondering how it will get on during the day.

Would anyone want to borrow it? What might people say to staff at the library about it when they return it?

Becoming available in the Leicestershire library catalogue is yet another development in the life of Death in the High City since it first became available in Kindle format in May 2014. It came out in paperback two months later and since then I have had some very encouraging feedback sent to me personally by email and also in the form of reviews on Amazon.

In October the book was launched officially in Bergamo in northern Italy, the city where most of the action in the novel takes place. The event was attended by about 60 people who showed a lot of interest and were keen to get hold of a signed copy as it was the first time anyone had set a British crime novel in Bergamo.

But what will Leicestershire library borrowers think about Death in the High City? So far it is uncharted territory and therefore I am eagerly awaiting the reactions of readers.

Death in the High City is a ‘cosy’ crime novel that will please people who like books set in Italy.

It features a freelance journalist, Kate Butler and her partner, a retired Detective Chief Inspector, Steve Bartorelli.

They both speak good Italian and are used to asking questions and finding information. Having recently been made redundant they both have plenty of time available for sleuthing and have already turned their attention to an unfortunate event that has taken place in another beautiful part of Italy…

For more information about Death in the High City visit www.bestofbergamo.com

Death in the High City

It is with a big sense of achievement, but also with some trepidation, that I have just published my first novel on Amazon.
Death in the High City is a crime novel that takes place in Bergamo in northern Italy. It is the first book in a series featuring detective duo Kate Butler, a freelance journalist, and Steve Bartorelli, a retired Detective Chief Inspector who is of partly Italian descent.coverpic
The novel has enabled me to write about Italian culture, food and wine and also indulge in my fascination for detective fiction.
Death in the High City is believed to be the first British crime novel to put the spotlight on Bergamo. It centres on the investigation into the murder of an English woman who was writing a biography of the composer Gaetano Donizetti.
The victim had been living in an apartment in Bergamo’s Città Alta and much of the action takes place within the walls of the high city. The local police do not believe there is enough evidence to open a murder enquiry and so Kate Butler, who is the victim’s cousin, arrives on the scene to try to get some answers about her cousin’s death.
Kate visits many of the places in Bergamo with Donizetti connections and her enquiries even take her to nearby Lago d’Iseo. But after her own life is threatened and there is another death in the Città Alta, her lover, Steve Bartorelli, joins her to help her unravel the mystery and trap the killer.
For more information about Death in the High City visit www.bestofbergamo.com

What inspires people to write about their travels?

When you visit somewhere new, even the everyday things seem fascinating and you will find yourself telling friends and family about them when you get back.
Just as people like to show you their holiday snaps when they return, or send postcards or text pictures to you while they are away, enthusiasm about what they have seen makes them want to tell others about it.
A compulsion to share what they experienced abroad was what inspired the earliest travel writers.
Centuries ago people kept journals about their travels or wrote long letters home giving detailed accounts of what they saw.
Thank goodness they felt the need to share their experiences, because what they wrote has given us a marvellous insight into what places were like in the past.
It is fascinating visiting Venice and seeing it through Lord Byron’s eyes, trying to imagine him in the narrow calle near his various residences, which have changed little since his time there.
He wrote detailed letters about his experiences in Venice to his friends and so we know that he actually preferred to travel by gondola or swim along the Grand Canal to avoid being recognised walking about the city by the tourists of his day.
One of Byron’s acquaintances in Italy at that time was Marguerite, Lady Blessington. She travelled further south after Byron set sail for Greece and spent more than two years in Naples staying in rented palazzi. Her journals give us a fascinating insight into what Naples was like at that time.
It was on 17 July, 1823 that  Lady Blessington began her Neapolitan Journals with an account of her first glimpse of the city. She wrote: “Naples burst upon us from the steep hill above the Campo Santo, and never did aught so bright and dazzling meet my gaze. Innumerable towers, domes and steeples, rose above palaces, intermingled with terraces and verdant foliage. The bay (pictured below), with its placid waters, lay stretched before us, bounded on the left by a chain of mountains, with Vesuvius, sending up its blue incense to the Cloudless sky.”Image
Lady Blessington was to fall in love with Naples and embrace the culture, attending local events, making what at the time were adventurous excursions and entertaining Neapolitan aristocrats and intellectuals.
Those who know Naples will recognise in her vivid descriptions places that have remained unchanged for the last 200 years. She also provides a valuable insight into what life was like at the time for ordinary people as well as the rich and privileged.
People who already love Naples will find her journals witty and endearing and those who have never visited the city will be inspired to go there as soon as possible.
 
For more information about Lady Blessington’s Neapolitan Journals visit http://www.bestofsorrento.com/2012/07/see-naples-and-die.html

What price a room with a view?

Looking out on a beautiful scene from your hotel window in Italy can be an important part of the holiday for many people.
If you are in Venice it is wonderful to be able to see a canal or the lagoon. If you are in a resort on a lake or by the sea it is lovely to have a view of the water. And if you are in an historic city it is exciting to look out at a famous building or piazza.

View from the Hotel Dania Capo di Sorrento

The view from my favourite Sorrento hotel

Wonderful views have drawn me back to the same hotel in Sorrento each year for the last 20 years. When I stayed there for the first time I arrived late at night with my husband and two young children. When we woke up the following morning to see the fabulous views of the bay of Naples our love affair with the hotel began and we have returned to stay there nearly every summer since.
The hotel, which is at Capo di Sorrento, has a large terrace overlooking the sea with panoramic views that I never tire of looking at.
My favourite view is from the terrace outside my room from where you can see the point of land known as Capo di Massa, which has the remains of a Saracen stone tower on the end where the land meets the sea.
From the dining room, or the terrace outside our room, we enjoy seeing cruise ships going past at night, lit up so they look like glittering diamond necklaces strung out over the sea.
In the mornings we enjoy watching the ferries and hydrofoils crossing from Sorrento to Capri and Ischia, or sailing past Capo di Massa to round Punta Campanella and reach the resorts along the Amalfi coast.
But sometimes when you are planning a holiday it is worth considering what you are going to be doing when you get there and whether it would be more practical to book a hotel in a handy location even if the views are not all that spectacular.
For example, if you are planning to travel about to other places sightseeing it might be better to book a hotel close to the railway station or bus station rather than in the heart of the centro storico.
Then when you return tired after a long day out you won’t have far to go to get to your hotel in order to shower and change for dinner.
If you are travelling with a car it might be worth considering an out of town hotel with free parking close to the autostrada so that you can get on your way quickly each morning.
Hotels in these types of locations are often modern and specially equipped for business travellers, meaning you will have the benefit of the extra facilities. Also, prices tend to be lower than those charged by hotels in the centre of town that have views of the historic sights.
There are many beautiful things to see in Italy while you are out and about during the day and you don’t necessarily have to be able to see them from your bedroom window.
But whether to be romantic or practical is entirely a matter of personal choice and deciding between a great view and a convenient location can be part of the fun of planning your holiday.

Lady Mary’s writing put Lovere on the map

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who is considered to be the first female English travel writer, was born 323 years ago today (15 May, 1689).Lovere
Lady Mary travelled extensively at the beginning of the 18th century with her husband, who was appointed British ambassador to Turkey and during this time she wrote the poetry and letters that established her literary reputation.
She also became an advocate of inoculation against smallpox, having witnessed the practice on her travels.
But in 1739 she left her husband and went to live in Italy alone. After spending time in Brescia in Lombardia she moved to live in Lovere on Lago d’Iseo (pictured above) on the advice of her doctor who thought the climate of the lakeside resort would be good for her health.
Lady Mary was to spend nearly ten years in Lovere, preferring it to the resorts of nearby Lago di Garda which were more well known and popular with English tourists.
She constantly praised Lovere as a holiday resort and is reputed to have once declined an invitation to the Venice carnival saying: “There are plenty of things to do in this village, which, by the way, is one of the most beautiful that exists.”
She bought an old palace where she spent happy years designing the garden and reading the books her daughter sent out to her from England .
She enjoyed entertaining local nobility and making the occasional trip to Genova and Padova, inspired to write poetry by the beauty of Lago d’Iseo and the “impassable mountains” surrounding it.
While living in Lovere she wrote in a letter to her daughter: “I am now in a place the most beautifully romantic I ever saw in my life.”
She returned to live in England in 1761 and died the following year. Her last words were reputed to be: “It has all been most interesting.”

Stop the world I want to get off … and land on Monte Isola

If you ever feel like getting away from it all for a while, I can recommend a small lake island in northern Italy.

Peschiera Maraglio at the foot of Monte Isola

Peschiera Maraglio at the foot of Monte Isola

Monte Isola, in the middle of Lago d’Iseo in Lombardia, provides a real escape from the modern world, although it takes only a few minutes to reach by boat.It is the largest lake island both in Italy and in central and southern Europe, rising to a peak of about 600 metres above the surface of the lake. It is a spectacular sight from the shores of Lago d’Iseo and is a lovely excursion to make in either the spring or the summer.
You can walk all the way round Monte Isola in a day along peaceful footpaths at the side of the lake, enjoying unspoilt natural scenery and beautiful views of the smaller islands of San Paolo and Loreto.
There are some good restaurants where you can eat fresh fish caught from the lake and comfortable hotels if you want to stay the night.
With fewer than 2,000 residents, Monte Isola is a green oasis with hardly any cars, as only the doctor and the mayor are allowed to have them.
There are several points around Lago d’Iseo from where you can take a ferry to Monte Isola, but the shortest crossing is from Sulzano on the Brescia side of the lake. You can take a train to Sulzano from the city of Brescia and it is just a short walk from the railway station in Sulzano to the imbarcadero, where you can buy boat tickets and get tourism information leaflets. After a few minutes on the ferry you disembark at Peschiera Maraglio, an old fishing village with shops and restaurants.
From Peschiera Maraglio it is a comfortable walk to the other side of the island and Monte Isola’s main village, Siviano. From there it is a short walk down to the port below Siviano to the imbarcadero where the boats leave for Tavernola Bergamasca on the Bergamo side of the lake. From there you can take a coach to Bergamo .
Or, you can ride back to Peschiera Maraglio on the island’s tiny bus, which leaves from Piazza Municipio in Siviano and from there take the ferry back to Sulzano on the Brescia side of the lake.
If you would like more information about Bergamo and other beautiful places in Lombardia visit www.bestofbergamo.com.

Easter celebrations in Italy

Easter is a lovely time of the year to visit Italy as the weather is beginning to warm up and the spring flowers are in bloom.
Many towns have processions on Venerdi Santo (Good Friday) when statues or crosses are paraded through the streets or displayed in the main square.
And while the world tunes in to watch the celebrations in Rome on television, special services will be held at churches all over Italy to celebrate la Pasqua(Easter Sunday).

La Colomba - traditional Italian Easter cake

Italy's traditional Easter cake - La Colomba

In the run up to the Easter weekend, many shops will have elaborate displays of chocolate eggs in their windows. Italian Easter eggs are usually wrapped artistically in coloured cellophane and tied with pretty ribbons. They often contain a toy, or in the case of Easter eggs for adults, a gift, which can sometimes be as substantial as a mobile phone!
Since Easter Sunday marks the end of Lent, food plays an important part in the Italian celebrations. Restaurants are usually busy at lunch time and many will serve a special menu for families who are out for a meal together, so it is advisable to book in advance if you are hoping to have a good lunch.
A traditional Easter meal for Italians, whether they are eating at home or in a restaurant, is likely to centre on agnello (lamb) as the main course, either roasted or braised.
For dessert there will usually be la Colomba, the dove shaped cake that is traditional at Easter, in the same way that il Panettone is eaten at Christmas.
La Colomba is known as the bird of peace and there is a legend that says a cake in the shape of a dove was offered to try to end a siege at Pavia centuries ago.
There is also the theory that the cake was created in the 1930s by a firm in Milan who wanted to provide a cake for Easter that was the equivalent of Panettone.
La Colomba is now sold all over Italy but can also be made in the home. The traditional version has an almond and sugar topping, but these days the shops sell them with all kinds of fillings, icings and toppings.
For details of what there is to see and do in the northern city of Bergamo in Lombardia, visit www.bestofbergamo.com. To find out about the main sights and attractions of Sorrento , a seaside resort south of Naples in Campania , visit www.bestofsorrento.com.