Conor Fitzgerald on Italian crime fiction

ROME – Conor Fitzgerald, an acclaimed writer of crime novels set in the bel paese, told the Italian Insider why it is that Italy makes such a good setting for the genre.

 Conor joins an esteemed list of writers like Donna Leon and Michael Dibdin who have captured the imagination of audiences with detective novels set in Italy. Other notable examples include novels by writers like David Hewson, Magdalen Nabb and Tobias Jones.

 It's not just English authors setting their novels in Italy either. A great number of Italian gialli (thrillers) are being translated for Anglophone readers, or indeed readers further afield. The Montalbano series by Andrea Camilleri has been translated into over 30 languages including Korean and Finnish.

 The popularity of these works is not merely due to the opportunity they offer for armchair travel: there's something about Italy's flawed judicial system that offers rich possibilities as a setting for a crime story.

 Conor Fitzgerald is an Irish author who has been living in Italy since 1989. He has enjoyed critical success with his crime novels that feature Italian / American Alec Blume as a police commissioner in Rome.

 Blume is a cynical maverick whose understanding of the socio-political framework of Italy is at the centre of his detective prowess. Conor spoke about his creation and about what makes Italy such a unique setting for a detective novel.

What does Italy offer as a setting for a crime novel that another country, say the UK, does not?

 Italy offers ambiguity and the opportunity for non-resolution. With a deeply flawed judicial system, and a series of unresolved terrorist outrages and Mafia crimes, this is a country in which no one expects to see justice being done.

 Even when a cogent explanation is provided, and the perpetrators of a given crime seem to have been apprehended, it is always legitimate to doubt the veracity of the official version. This indeterminacy is reflected in the fact that the “innocent until proven guilty” principle is applied from the court of first instance all the way to the Supreme Court of appeals.

 In other words, only when all legal processes have been thoroughly exhausted, and this may take 20 years, is a person finally “guilty”, by which stage many of the country office-conspirators, victims, associates and so on will be dead, and the crime mostly forgotten.

 Italians always believe in an ulterior and hidden motive behind any decision, even one so simple as the arrest of a person for a crime. This tendency to seek out a conspiracy behind all actions and decisions is referred to as dietrologia.

 Italy is therefore an ideal country in which to base a series in which the investigation itself is less important than the personality and standing of the people the investigator comes into contact with. Italian suspicion of the motivations of the prosecutors, the state, the police and public institutions prevents any idea of “closure”, or perfect justice, which is how I think it should be when dealing with violence and wrongdoing.

 So far, the books in the Blume series have covered a range of topics: from illegal betting, human trafficking and art fraud, to the Mafia. How much research is involved in each book?

 Quite a lot goes in. I worked for over 10 years writing a journal on Italian current affairs which I distributed to foreign embassies, so I have a pretty solid basis when it comes to understanding how things work in Italy. Even now, I work for the Italian Parliament as a translator, which keeps me familiar with the Italian legal system. In addition to this, I do research.

I hope it's not too evident, because I prefer writers who don’t like to show off their recently acquired knowledge on a subject.

The protagonist of the books is Alec Blume. Alec is a complex character – a tortured loner living in his adoptive Italy. At some points he is a pretty unlikable guy: what inspired you to choose such a character as the novels’ protagonist?

 I see Blume as reasonably likeable most of the time, though not always wise. He is American and Italian at once – a combination that to a certain extent, I experience myself having lived most of my life in this country, which is my home more than anywhere else, yet also a foreign country.

 The insider-outsider status is a common trope in detective fiction, as it enables the detective to cast a cold eye on the society that surrounds him, without ever being fully part of it. A fully integrated individual, especially one working for the state in Italy, is a fully compromised one.

 Detachment is key, and in this respect an investigator resembles a writer, or any other person who has dedicated his or her life to observation rather than full participation.

Are the books a comment on modern Italy?

 Yes. The insider-outsider status of Blume facilitates this. A person with two languages has two souls, and sometimes one soul can be offended by that which the other accepts as normal.

What's next for Commissario Alec Blume?

 Good question. Circumstances have delayed my writing schedule, and the next book has been deferred. All I can say for now is that it will have priests in it.