Wednesday, January 31, 2007


I enjoy history books of all types, and of course I am a crime fiction addict.
With Carlo Lucarelli's Carte Blanche I get a double helping of what I like, and it has left me wanting more of Commissario De Luca.

Carlo Lucarelli was collecting material for a thesis entitled "The Vision of the Police in the Memories of Anti-Fascists" when he met a character who had been a policeman during the period of turmoil around the end of the Second World War.
From this meeting and the subsequent stories of time in the fascist political police, partisan police, Republican police and just the police, he invented Commisario De Luca. I remember a similar story concerning the American author David Liss his work for a thesis on 18th century finance, and the creation of his pugilistic detective Benjamin Weaver.
Neither thesis ever got written.
Carte Blanche, the first book in the De Luca trilogy, is set in April 1945 in that part of Northern Italy still controlled by the Germans and their Italian fascist allies. Italy at that time was a battle ground because when the Anglo-American forces landed in Sicily in 1943 the fascist regime fell, and Mussolini was arrested.
The new government broke the alliance with Hitler [the Rome -Berlin Axis], and on September 8 joined the Allies. The Germans rushed in to occupy that part of the country not yet liberated by the Anglo-American forces. Otto Skorzeny and a special forces unit rescued Mussolini, and put him in charge of a collaborationist government.
It was a time of utter turmoil, where for instance in Milan there were 16 seperate police forces, ranging from the "Questura" to the Gestapo.
Commissario De Luca has been transferred back to the police from the fascist political police to investigate the murder of Vittorio Rehinard. Rehinard is a handsome playboy, drug dealer and low life, but predictably he has been involved with some important people in the regime. De Luca thinks he will be told to forget the case because of the VIP's involved and the way Rehinard was killed, but one political faction in the government wishes to use the case to bring down Count Tedesco, the Foreign Minister.
"This is unacceptable!" he cried slamming his fist down on the desk. "I am a personal friend of Il Duce and I deserve some respect!"
There are many suspects including the young blond Sonia Tedesco, daughter of the Count, Silvia Alfieri, wife of another government minister, and the enigmatic redhaired beauty Valeria Suvich.
One does not have to be clairvoyant to know the difficulties and dangers De Luca will face in an atmosphere of decay, violence, and the collapse of a corrupt regime. Each of the factions are trying to maintain their standing, while moving to position themselves and to ingratiate themselves with the future new regime of the advancing Anglo-Americans*.
This is an excellent fast moving police procedural with a difference, it was too short at just over 100 pages and left this reader like Oliver Twist wanting more.
Today we think of Fascist Italy as a joke because of Mussolini's idiotic strutting, and the total failure of his military in Greece and North Africa. But it was no joke for those who lived under the regime.
Benito Mussolini and the fascists took power in October 1922. For twenty years, the regime consolidated itself into a ferocious dictatorship that suspended political and civil liberties,dissolved political parties and newspapers, persecuted opponents and put practically all of Italy in military uniform in imitation of Nazi Germany.
De Luca bit his lip, cupping his chin with his hand. He sighed thinking of the Gestapo, the Chief, the Federale........
* The Allied forces in Italy were a very cosmopolitan force and included Free French Algerians, Canadians, Poles and New Zealanders among others. I have used the expression Anglo-Americans for brevity.

Monday, January 29, 2007


Over the years January has not been a good month for me, and I wait in trepidation each year for the month to end.

My mood has been such that I did not start to read the remaining Montalbano mystery I have, The Terracotta Dog.

I needed something harsher and grittier, because even though Camilleri writes about terrible crimes he does it with such wit and humour, that the full horror is almost hidden from view.

Today I read Almost Blue by Carlo Lucarelli right through in one sitting. It has left me drained, and the effect is almost cathartic.

This powerful book roars along through 161 pages at breakneck speed, and it is hard to put down.
The story is told through the voices of three people:

Simone, a young blind man, who spends his days scanning the radio waves of Bologna.

Ispettore Grazia Nero, a young policewoman hunting a serial killer.

And the serial killer himself, the Iguana a violent psychotic, who assumes the identity and appearance of his victims.

When a fingerprint is found in one of the victims apartments it belongs to a supposedly dead patient at a psychiatric establishment.

But by chance Simone overhears the voice of the Iguana on his scanner.

Grazia, and her boss Commissario Capo Vittoria Poletto, attempt to use Simone's skill at identifying voices to find the Iguana, and this leads to a very violent confrontation at the climax of the book.

Grazia Nero is a very human and interesting detective, very much like a young Jane Tennyson.
I had already read the second book in the series Day After Day a few weeks ago.
Almost Blue was shortlisted for a CWA award, but I do think Day After Day was a better story and it certainly would have been more sensible to have read them in the correct order. These books are not for the faint hearted, but are excellent examples of Italian noir, and the serial killer crime novel.

Get him, bambina.

Sunday, January 28, 2007


Is there any better music as an accompaniment to read Camilleri?

Saturday, January 27, 2007


In between my conclave with Camilleri I am reading Don't Give Up the Ship! Myths of the War of 1812 by Donald R. Hickey, a professor at Wayne State College in Wayne, Nebraska.

It struck me that many of the very long history books I have read before have been written by professors from North Dakota, Colorado or Ohio. I suppose there is not much to do there in the winter.

The prologue is entitled "The United States and Great Britain in a War-Torn World", and the opening words are quite sobering:

The world was a very dangerous place in 1812,..........


Friday, January 26, 2007


The Inspector Salvo Montalbano Mystery Series(Translated from the Italian by Stephen Sartarelli)
The Shape of Water (#1) (La forma dell'acqua)
©1994English Translation©2002
The Terra-Cotta Dog (#2) (Il cane di terracotta)
©1996English Translation©2002
The Snack Thief (#3) (Il ladro di merendine)
©1996English Translation©2003
Voice of the Violin (#4) (La voce del violino)
©1997English Translation©2003
The Excursion To Tindari (#5) (La gita a Tindari)
©2000English Translation©2004
The Smell of the Night (#6) (L'odore della notte)
©2001English Translation©2005
Rounding the Mark (#7) (Il giro di boa)
©2003English Translation©2006
The Patience of the Spider (#8) (La pazienza del ragno)
©2004English Translation©2007

Not yet translated from the Italian
La luna di carta (#9)
La vampa d'agosto (#10)
Le ali della sfinge (#11)
La pista di sabbia (#12)
Il campo del vasaio (#13)

Those are golden words to be enjoyed and savoured with relish: "not yet translated from the Italian".

Although I have read six of the Montalbano stories I realised that I had missed The Terra-Cotta Dog, so while I wait for The Patience of the Spider I will have another Camilleri to enjoy. It looks like more work for translator Stephen Sartarelli, or Italian lessons for me.

Thursday, January 25, 2007


I have finished reading The Scent of the Night and do not have another Camilleri on my bookshelf to read. If I had not just eaten a delicious meal of haddock baked in a parcel, with capers and courgette, I would be feeling even more distraught.

I read this book very quickly because firstly it is another excellent crime novel and secondly because the main family TV is away for repair. I realise how much valuable reading time I waste watching crime shows, news programs, and political discussions. Sometimes it is difficult to tell which program is which, but for the fact that the fictional criminals look more honest than the real life politicians.

Camilleri's successful formula is repeated once again with charm, humour and wit. Mimi Augello philanders even while waiting to marry, Catarella rushes around mangling his words, Fazio works hard like a classy guy and Commissioner Bonnetti-Alderighi loses his cool with Montalbano.

And "liccu cannarutu" Salvo Montalbano investigates, while carrying on with some difficulty his long range, and long term relationship with Livia.

When octogenarian Salvatore Garzullo realises he has, like many of Vigata's naive citizens, been swindled out of his savings by ragionere Emanuele Gargano, he takes action and holds the financial adviser's secretary hostage.

[A ragionere is someone who holds a degree in ragioneria the study of business administration and accounting]

Mariastella Cosentino the fiftyish homely secretary does not believe Gargano has perpetrated a simple fraud and thinks he has had an accident. When Montalbano and his trusty team are told to take a secondary role, and defer to the fraud expert Inspector Guarnotta we know it will merely encourage them to pursue a "private" investigation.

The other members of Gargano's office are the beautiful young Michela, and a young assistant Giacomo Pellegrino. When Montalbano discovers that Pellegrino has also disappeared, and Michela informs him about the relationships in the office he begins to form a theory. Guarnotta meanwhile has decided the Mafia are involved, but Montalbano is not convinced as mafiosi are surely too shrewd to fall for a financial scam.

With Mimi Augello seducing Michela, and Montalbano's favourite Saracen Tree cut down to make way for a house the investigation meanders along until Salvo Montalbano surprisingly finds himself living in a short story by William Faulkner.
liccu cannarutu: gourmand and glutton
pasta 'ncasciata: one of the many forms of southern Italian pasta al forno, that is, a casserole of oven baked pasta and other ingredients. Pasta 'ncasciata generally contains small macaroni, tuma or caciocavallo cheese, ground beef, mortadella or salami, hard boiled eggs, tomatoes, aubergine, grated Pecorino cheese, basil, olive oil and a splash of white wine.
William Faulkner born New Albany, Mississippi in 1897, he wrote among other works As I Lay Dying, and The Wild Palms. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


from BBC News 19 January 2007

Key evidence in the trial of 29 Italian police officers charged over violence during the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa has vanished, police say.
Two Molotov cocktails allegedly planted by police in a school used as a base by anti-globalisation protesters can no longer be found.
The bombs are seen as crucial physical evidence against many of the defendants in the high-profile trial.
The police are accused of brutality and perjury over a raid on the Diaz school.
The petrol bombs - expected to be a key piece of evidence in the case - were due to be presented in court this week.
Prosecutors now fear that the case could collapse, allowing many of the high-ranking defendants to walk free.
Rounding The Mark was published in Italian in 2003 and the opening pages detail the anger felt by Montalbano at the police actions in Genoa 2001. This report from 4 days ago shows that Andrea Camilleri knows his Italy, and his books have a relevance and message beyond just fiction.
furba gente: cunning people
Fatta la legge trovato l'inganno: no sooner is a law made than someone will find a way round it. [from The Dark Heart of Italy, Tobias Jones]

Saturday, January 20, 2007


Rounding The Mark begins with Salvo Montalbano about to resign over the treatment of protesters at the G8 meeting in Genoa, July 2001.

But before he can see the Commissioner he goes swimming, and as luck would have it he meets a floating deadbody, which he tows ashore. This incident ends with the Inspector naked on the beach and having his head cracked with an iron bar.

This is only the start of his troubles as next a group of illegal immigrants are being escorted off a boat at the dockside, while Montalbano is delivering spare spectacles to Deputy Commissioner Riguccio. A little black African boy runs away but Montalbano retrieves him, and returns him to his mother.

Montalbano is very disturbed by the way the boy raises his hands in a gesture of surrender similar to the scene in the old wartime photo in Poland of a little Jewish boy raising his arms in front of Nazi soldiers. He is even more disturbed the next day when the boy is found dead, the victim of a hit and run driver.

As Favio and Catarella try to discover the identity of the dead swimmer, Montalbano investigates the boy's death and realises the terrible truth about the illegal traffic in immigrant children.
The two investigations begin to converge, and Camilleri does not pull his punches in his criticisms of the disgusting criminals, who perpetuate a modern slave trade. Once agin Montalbano has to enrol the driving skills of Swedish beauty Ingrid, the reliabilty of Favio, the simple intuition of Catarella and some tough methods of his own to bring the case to a satisfactory conclusion.
"Government may as well send quaker meeting-houses to float this sea....." William Eaton, US consul to Tunis
Octopus a strascinasali: consists of small octopi (polipetti in Italian, purpiteddi or frajeddi in Sicilian) simply boiled in salted water, then dressed in olive oil, and lemon juice.


Peter over at the always readable Detectives Beyond Borders referred to me as a Montalbano Nut!

Examining the character of the Sicilian detective, and his creator Andrea Camilleri I regard this as a very high compliment.

The more I read through the series the more I find myself identifying myself with Salvo, and he is becoming more and more like a close friend. PerhapsMontalbano is not as secure a personality as Guido Brunetti, who has a seemingly perfect life in beautiful Venice, and that makes Salvo that little bit more believable and human.

Montalbano seems to be travelling that familiar path from a caring almost naive liberal to a pragmatic realist. He is frequently brought to that harsh realism by the dreadful crimes he has to investigate.

Those of us who reached adulthood in the 1960's hoped for a better society in the future. Unfortunately in achieving some of those ideals, and trying reaching that liberal utopia we have unleashed terrible problems.

Montalbano is forced to do things that are not in the modern police manual, sometimes he is more Guantanimo than Gandhi. But it is clear that he enjoys giving some very nasty people a bit of their own medicine. That and his love of seafood makes him someone I can feel empathy with as he struggles with his conscience.

He is certainly a more sympathetic character than the British detectives, Rebus, Banks and Morse, and the enigmatic Scandinavians, Beck and Wallander.

One of the real charms of the Montalbano books is his relationships with his team, and especially the complete loyalty he inspires.

The contrasting characters are very clearly drawn; Favio, the reliable cop, the childlike, devoted Catarella, and the smooth young womaniser Mimi Augello, all become vital cogs in the team as the series progresses.

And of course there is his unofficial helper, the beautiful Swedish ex-racing driver Ingrid. Her relationship with Montalbano adds that "will he, won't he", be unfaithful to girl friend Livia in Genoa, spice to the mix.

I have to declare that Camilleri's creation is definitely my favourite detective at present.

Monday, January 15, 2007


In a discussion on Petrona on the 27 December concerning why we like blogging one comment by Steve Clackson added "life experience" to Petrona's formula.

hobby + job skills + anyone can do it + life experience= blogging

I suppose you could say the blog useful part of my "job skills" involved years of listening to a lot of other peoples life experiences.

While my own life experiences involve a lot of circumstances that I could well have done without.

I once even lost a job to someone, who a few months later became a murderer.

But as a complete break from the heavy crime novels and history books I read, we watched the charming romantic comedy Elizabethtown on Saturday night. With the very pretty Kirsten Dunst, it is nice to see an American movie star who does not have pefectly straight teeth, Orlando Bloom and the delectable, delicious Susan Sarandon this is lightweight and amusing stuff.

I also enjoyed it even more because we must be two of the very few people in the UK who have actually been to Elizabethtown.

You just can't beat life experience.
Fools say they learn by experience. I prefer to learn by other people's experience: Otto von Bismark

Back to crime fiction on my next post.


In her latest post at the excellent and informative It's a Crime! (or a mystery) crimefic reader discusses her purchase of her first DVD boxed set; the US TV series NCIS [Naval Criminal Investigation Service].

There is also a link to the long discussion on Petrona about the series star Mark Harmon, who obviously has made an impression on the "ladies who blog".

Therefore I thought I would feature one of my favourite US TV series, that not only had the exciting Roseanne Barr, but in the first series a very young George Clooney.
I think that as well as the crisp sharp comedy there was a lot of social comment in this series about life in small town America. The struggles of these "blue collar" working families were just so different from the usual Dallas and Dynasty image that television and films potrayed. It was a breath of fresh air.
But like many TV shows after a few seasons the scripts deteriorated, and it fell away and become just another run of the mill comedy series.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


I am about half way through reading Rounding The Mark, and Andrea Camilleri once again is exploring some powerful themes.
As the story begins Montalbano is about to resign in disgust over the behaviour of the police in dealing with the protesters at the G8 meeting in Genoa. He goes for a swim to relax, and comes across a dead body in the sea, which he drags to shore.

There is an investigation to find out whose body it is, but Montalbano seems more concerned at the shabby treatment of the illegal immigrants, who risk the sea crossing from Africa to reach the shores of Sicily.
There is a deep moral validity in the case put by Camilleri through his caring detective Salvo Montalbano, but can Europe take in all who want to enter our countries.

Will opening our borders to too many people destroy the very things that make our countries so desireable to immigrants?

I read crime fiction to relax , but reading this Camilleri novel there is no easy escape from harsh reality.

My own experience travelling in Italy is that all Italians are not as caring as Montalbano, perhaps feeling that they are on the front line facing a problem that will get more testing in the future.

Friday, January 12, 2007


In between my Montalbano-Camilleri marathon [in which I am now on to Rounding the Mark] I have read James D. Tabor's The Jesus Dynasty.

Don't be fooled by the slightly hysterical blurbs on the front and back covers about "stunning new evidence" or "the greatest historical detective story ever told..." this is an erudite book by a distinguished scholar.

There is a criminal connection because Professor Tabor was chief historical consultant to novelist Kathy Reichs for Cross Bones. Formerly at the University of Notre Dame, Professor Tabor is now chair of the department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

There is no resemblance between this book and The Da Vinci Code, because despite its cover it is not sensationalist and Professor Tabor is a bibilical archaeologist not a thriller writer. Although in fact there are more real "intellectual thrills" in The Jesus Dynasty than in The Da Vinci Code.

I learned a tremendous amount about the historical Jesus and his time from this book, and can highly recommend it to anyone with an open enquiring mind.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


(ANSA) - Palermo, January 4 - The son of a late mafia boss has been granted house arrest because of his academic record and in order to allow him to complete his university degree, the local press reported on Thursday.Francesco Paolo Bontade was in prison serving an 8-year sentence for drug trafficking, which was reduced to three years four months in an appeals trial.According to the judges who granted the house arrest, Bontade's academic performance was evidence that a "concrete possibility exists that he can be reformed".Bontade was convicted of being part of a heroin smuggling operation between Turkey and Sicily.Francesco Paolo Bontade is the son of the late Stefano Bontade, who headed the historic Villagrazia gang and was a leading member of the so-called 'losing Mafia', which was eliminated during the rise to power of the ruthless duo of killers from Corleone Salvatore (Toto') Riina and Bernardo Provenzano.
I have to admit to be slightly amused at the phrase "concrete possibility" when dealing with the Mafia. I had a sudden vision of the newly poured concrete foundations of a bridge with ........ no I had better not go there.
"When the rain comes, you can suddenly see all the snails' horns"
[Old Scicilian proverb quoted in Excellent Cadavers, The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic by Alexander Stille.]

Monday, January 08, 2007


A pensioner shot his love rival after they met at an allotment to discuss their relationship with a sheltered accommodation warden.
Reuben Bettis, 68, opened fire on Derek Hammersley, 67, in Orsett, Essex, Basildon Crown Court heard on Monday.
He asked to meet after they both fell for 60-year-old Irene Williams, who worked where they lived.
Judge Philip Clegg adjourned sentencing but said Bettis, who also admitted possessing the gun, would be jailed.
Both men - thought to be retired dock workers - lived in a sheltered accommodation block at Tilbury, Essex.
Mr Hammersley was hit in the hand and stomach from a double-barrelled shotgun Bettis had borrowed from a friend.
Mr Hammersley needed surgery and doctors considered amputating his hand, the court heard
[from BBC news]

Lupara- A sawn off shotgun traditionally the weapon of choice among the mafiosi and bandits in Scicily.

Sunday, January 07, 2007


Last week in the UK a small child was savaged to death by a pit bull terrier, and by some accounts the owner had convictions for drug offences.

A writer in the Telegraph, I forget who, pointed it out as an example of the casual brutality and criminality of "our feral underclass".

In Andrea Camilleri's books we frequently read about the underclass, but it is the indifference and ruthless brutality of many of the "overclass" that is the crux of his stories. He certainly feels that Montalbano, Augello, Catarella and the rest of the team are in that middle ground trying to protect us the "silent majority".

In Excursion to Tindari Camilleri does not pull any punches, and it is the stark contrast between all the humour, and the heartless "real world" that makes this such a good novel.
Salvo Montalbano is investigating the murder of Nene Sanfillippo, a twenty year old "with too much money in his pockets, and who brought a different woman home every other night".
The Griffos a grumpy elderly couple have disappeared, while they were on an excursion to the shrine at Tindari, and because they lived in the same building as Nene Montalbano suspects some connection.
Meanwhile Don Balduccio Sinagra, the old style local Mafia don, is concerned about his grandson who is on the run from both the police and rival new style Mafia gangs.
Montalbano has to work out a scheme to prevent Mimi Augello leaving his team to live with his new fiance who works in Pavia, while also trying to work out who is the beautiful older lover of young Nene featured in some pornographic videotapes.
The cocktail is stirred and shaken with accounts of Montalbano's relationships with his superiors, his team, his lover Livia in Genoa, his friend Ingrid and most importantly his stomach.
When Salvo solves all the interlocking puzzles it comes as a minor shock to find out that beneath the glitz, caponata, seafood, and shine his world like ours is a very sad place.
Caponata- a zesty traditional southern-Italian dish often served as an appetizer or side dish, made up of sauteed aubergine, tomato, green pepper, garlic, onion, celery, black olives, vinegar, olive oil and anchovies.


Thanks to Karen at Eurocrime for pointing me to an interesting article on Andrea Camilleri in The Independent.
I selected this passage to quote because it is an education in the real cost of not facing up to reality.

"Let me tell you a personal story to give you an idea of how much of my father has passed on to Montalbano. My father was a real Fascist, one of the true believers. Then one day in 1938, a school friend of mine called Marcello Pera came to me and said goodbye. He said, 'Tomorrow I'm not coming to school.' I said 'Why not, Marcello?' 'Because I'm a Jew.' What it meant to be Jewish hit me like a bolt from the blue... So I went home to my supper and I said to my dad: 'You know my friend Marcello Pera? He can't come to school any more because he's Jewish.' My father hit the roof, saying 'That bastard,' referring to Mussolini - and he was a squadrista, a hard-line Fascist. 'The Jews are just like us,' he roared. That was my father. And I've always tried to make Montalbano critical about the behaviour and orders of his bosses, the imbecility of power."

full article at

While failing to outline a coherent program, fascism evolved into a new political and economic system that combined totalitarianism, nationalism, anti-communism and anti-liberalism in a state designed to bind all classes together under a corparist system (The "Third Way"). This was a new system in which the state seized control of the organization of vital industries. Under the banners of nationalism and state power, Fascism seemed to synthesize the glorious Roman past with a futuristic utopia. [from Wikpedia]

Thursday, January 04, 2007


Edward Alleyn or Alleyne 1566-1626, was a leading actor of the 1590's, as well as a proprietor of playhouses, bearpits and brothels. It was the wealth from his position as "master of the King's games of bears, bulls and dogs" that allowed him to purchase in 1605 the manor of Dulwich.

Dulwich stretched from the high point of Crystal Palace [now home to a television transmitter] to a point 3 miles nearer London along a parallel ridge comprising Herne Hill, Denmark Hill and Champion Hill.

I lived at Champion Hill, some 350 years later, and on my last visit in November after a gap of thirty odd years the climb up it had become somewhat steeper than I remembered.

Alleyn founded a "College of God's gift" at Dulwich, which was attended over the years by such distinguished alumni as explorer Ernest Shackelton, C.S.Forester, Raymond Chandler, P.G.Wodehouse and myself.

Dulwich College had 6 athletic houses named for Tudor or Stuart personalities; Drake, Sidney, Raleigh, Grenville [my house which was usually last in competitions], Spenser and Marlowe.

That is why Raymond Chandler's detective is Phillip Marlowe, with an e.

It also explains why Robert B Parker presumably in homage to Chandler called his detective Spenser.
I wonder if the New Zealand writer Dame Ngaio Marsh, who was also a Shakespearian theatrical producer, thought about Edward Alleyn when she chose the name Roderick Alleyn for her CID detective.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


I just love those little moments of sheer reading pleasure that define for me Italian crime writing.
This example from my reading list last year..........
Carlo Lucarelli's detective Grazia Nero has just discovered that the man holding her captive has killed 59 people, but......

"He watched as she leaned forward on her hands and knees to get another sandwich from the bag. Chicken and rocket, no. Hardboiled egg and tuna, no. Peppers and prosciutto, yes."

And another from Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano in my current read Excursion to Tindari.....

He opened the fridge and let out a whinny of sheer delight.

As a well known gourmet and greedy guts I can appreciate their emotions.


Maxine at Petrona asks:

"So what are you optimistic about in these first few days of a new year? Putting aside world peace, and end to hunger and a stop to all beauty contests, what is the one best thing that has a good chance of happening this year?"

I try to be optimistic at all times of the year, some might call that stupidity or immaturity, but I put it down to a good knowledge of history.

"How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world."

Anne Frank 1929-1945