Category Archives: Italy

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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 To find out about the main sights and attractions of Sorrento , a seaside resort south of Naples in Campania , visit

The inspirational power of Bergamo

I have become a frequent visitor to Bergamo in northern Italy over the last few years and started travel writing as a result of my interest in the city.Bergamo's Città Alta seen from Città Bassa
There are many ways in which Bergamo has inspired me as a writer, but probably its most fascinating feature is the way the Città Alta appears in the skyline enticing you to go up there.
The view of Bergamo’s upper town in the skyline is one of the first things you notice when you arrive. Even as you get off the plane at Bergamo Caravaggio airport it is difficult to ignore the city.
You can see the domes and towers of the upper town silhouetted against the sky from the airport runway.
To move straight on to Milan, or one of the lakes, as many people do, without exploring the medieval Città Alta and the lower town, the Città Bassa, would be a great pity.
If you arrive in Bergamo by train, or take the bus into the city from the airport, you will see a magnificent view of the Città Alta from outside the railway station.
If you stand and look down the long, straight Viale Papa Giovanni XXIII you will see the towers and roofs of the Città Alta silhouetted against the blue sky, suspended as if by mysterious means.
It’s a magical view and makes you want to go straight up there and explore the upper town at close quarters.
The view is different according to the season. I have visited Bergamo in the spring, summer and autumn. The Città Alta looks magnificent on a bright day silhouetted against a blue sky. But it also looks beautiful shrouded in mist in the autumn.
One of the most striking features that you notice straight away is the huge wall around the Città Alta.
Le Mura is the name for the 16th century fortified walls that have divided Bergamo into two cities, the Città Alta (the upper town) and the Città Bassa (the lower town). They are truly monumental stone walls, completely surrounding the Città Alta, built by the Venetian occupiers and rulers of Bergamo in 1561 to keep invaders out.
You will sometimes see articles written about Bergamo in magazines and newspapers, and information about the city in travel guides about northern Italy, where the Città Bassa is dismissed as not being worth a visit.
But having stayed in Bergamo many times I have found that there are a lot of buildings of historical importance on both sides of the walls.
Bergamo is an artistic and cultural treasure chest, but also has its own natural beauty, set among hills, mountains, lakes and rolling countryside.
The Città Alta is an impressive fortified town, which has retained many of its 12th century buildings and has had some stunning Renaissance and Baroque architecture added over the centuries.
It is where the Venetian east meets the Lombardian west. Because they governed for so long, the Venetians have left behind traces of their culture and style, such as the ornate fountains.
One of the most historically important places in Bergamo is the spot where the patron saint, Sant’Alessandro, was decapitated by the Romans in 298 for refusing to renounce his Christian faith. Yet it is outside the walls in the Città Bassa.
A Roman column in front of the church of Sant’Alessandro in Colonna is believed to mark the exact spot where he was martyred.
Every year on 26 August Bergamo remembers Sant’Alessandro’s decapitation in 298. For the first time, in 2010, there was a re-enactment of the event in full costume at the scene as part of the annual Festa di Sant’Alessandro.
The church of Sant’Alessandro in Colonna was rebuilt in the 18th century on the site of a much earlier church in Via Sant’Alessandro. Its ornate campanile was completed at the beginning of the 20th century.
The church houses a work depicting the martyrdom of Sant’Alessandro by Enea Salmeggia and one showing the transporting of Sant’Alessandro’s corpse by Gian Paolo Cavagna. It also contains paintings by Renaissance artist Lorenzo Lotto, a Venetian who lived in Bergamo for 12 years.
Via Sant’Alessandro is an ancient winding street that leads down from Porta San Giacomo into the modern centre of Bergamo.
Yet the features and guide book entries that tell you there is nothing of interest in the Città Bassa completely overlook this area.
(An extract from ‘Why Bergamo inspires me as a writer’, a talk given to the Nottingham Dante Alighieri Society in March 2012).
For more information about Bergamo, visit my website

Bright fragrant mimosa signals respect for women

All over Italy, men will be seen carrying bunches of prettily wrapped mimosa to give to the woman in their lives today.Giving mimosa flowers is Italian tradition
The flowers might be for their wives, girlfriends, mothers, friends or even employees and are meant as a sign of respect for womanhood.
The custom of men giving mimosa to their ladies began in the 1940s after the date 8 March was chosen as the Festa della Donna (Festival of the Woman) in Italy. The date coincides with International Women’s Day.
Yellow mimosa was chosen as the flower to give because it is in bloom at the beginning of March, is relatively inexpensive and the scent of it in the atmosphere is a sign that primavera (spring) is just round the corner.
Continuing with the theme of mimosa, you might see on restaurant menus at this time of the year variations of dishes such as risotto mimosa or pasta mimosa (made with finely scrambled eggs).
And some cake shops will have Torta Mimosa in their windows, a concoction made with sugar, orange juice, whipped cream and orange liqueur.
Buona Festa!

Bergamo airport is dedicated to an artistic genius

When booking flights to Italy you might be puzzled to see references to Caravaggio airport near Milan.


Caravaggio's self portrait

This is because Bergamo airport at Orio al Serio has changed its name to the Caravaggio International Airport Bergamo – Orio al Serio.
ENAC (the Italian civil aviation board) approved the decision by SACBO (the management company of Bergamo airport) to dedicate the airport to the controversial but highly talented painter Michelangelo Merisi.
Bergamo airport is also often referred to as ‘Milan Bergamo’. It is now the fourth busiest airport in Italy and you can fly to it from 29 different countries.
The artist Michelangelo Merisi became known as Caravaggio because he spent the early years of his life living in the small town of Caravaggio just south of Bergamo.
The painter is believed to have been born in Milan in 1571 but his family moved to Caravaggio because of an outbreak of plague.
He returned to train as a painter in Milan but then went on to work in Rome , Naples, Malta and Sicily until his death at Porto Ercole in Tuscany in 1610.
Caravaggio became famous for his paintings for churches and palaces that combine a realistic observation of the physical and emotional state of human beings with a dramatic use of lighting. This was a formative influence for the baroque school of painting.
Despite his artistic success he had a turbulent personal life. He was thrown into jail on several occasions, once vandalised his own apartment and had a death warrant issued for him by the Pope.
Some of his major works, such as The Calling of St Matthew, the Crucifixion of St Peter and Deposition, can be found in churches in Rome , but his work is also well represented in the Uffizi gallery in Florence.
The town of Caravaggio is worth visiting to see the Sanctuary of the Madonna di Caravaggio, which was built in the 16th century on the spot where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a humble peasant woman.
The Sanctuary was later rebuilt and completed in the 18th century and is now a grand building visited by pilgrims from all over the world.

Why I prefer to celebrate with Prosecco rather than Champagne

On Valentine’s Day, and any other occasions when there is an excuse to crack open the bubbly, you will find me drinking Prosecco.
A delicate, sparkling white wine, Prosecco is sold by the glass in bars in Italy and is a refreshing drink to order at any time of the day.
Named after the variety of grape it is made from, Prosecco is lighter and more delicate than Champagne because it is bottled while young rather than being fermented.prosecco bottle
It is made in the areas of Valdobbiadene and Conegliano in the Veneto region, in the north east of Italy .
The grape, one of Italy’s oldest, was probably named after the town of Prosecco near Trieste, where it  is believed to have originated.
Italy produces 150 million bottles of Prosecco a year, mostly from the area around Valdobbiadene.
Fortunately for the rest of the world, Prosecco travels well. It is reasonably priced in the UK , ranging from £6 to £12 a bottle. It is best drunk young, the perfect excuse for not leaving it on the wine rack too long.
When on holiday in Italy, Prosecco is the ideal aperitivo to enjoy before lunch and dinner and is a refreshing drink to order in a bar when you are having a break from sight seeing. Salute!

Italy images provide a welcome winter warmer

What could be more warming on a cold winter’s day than looking back at your summer travel photographs and remembering how hot it was when they were taken?Italia! Magazine
Yesterday I was able to do just that by venturing out in the snow showers to W H Smith to buy a copy of the latest ITALIA! Magazine, which includes my feature on Cava de’ Tirreni, a town south of Naples and Sorrento set in the hills above the Amalfi coast.
The feature ‘48 HOURS IN Cava de’ Tirreni’ forms part of a Best of Campania special in the March edition of the magazine and is run alongside reviews of a hotel in Capri and one in Amalfi by boutique hotel booking specialists Mr and Mrs Smith, and an article exploring the property buying options in Campania.
Eagerly turning the pages with fingers numb with cold, I immediately remembered how warm it had been walking round Cava de’ Tirreni for two days last September and how pleasant it had been to escape for a few hours to the slightly cooler village of Corpo di Cava in the hills above the town.
Even some of the locals are wearing sleeveless tops and shorts in the pictures that accompany the feature.
On a day when I needed several layers of jumpers and fleeces to keep warm, it was lovely being transported back and remembering what it was like to be there.

ITALIA! magazine Issue 88 March 2012 is now on sale in branches of W H Smith. For more information about the magazine visit