Monday, November 03, 2008

Murderous Thoughts in a Beautiful Setting

At the weekend, to celebrate both All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (or to give it its more appropriate name, the Day of the Dead), the small Italian town of Trevi in Umbria was the setting for a two-day festival of crime writing. The chief instigators of this event were the husband-and-wife writing team Michael G. Jacob and Daniela De Gregorio, who together make up Michael Gregorio, author of Critique of Criminal Reason (2006) and Days of Atonement (2007), published by Faber and Faber in the UK and St. Martin’s Minotaur in the States.

Trevi is a beautiful hilltop town with steep, narrow alleys--mostly unnamed and unlit at night, except perhaps for candles on the ground--making it not only a great place to hold a crime festival, but also the ideal setting for a crime novel. As I was wandering the streets before the festival started, I even found a red stain on the cobble stones that looked suspiciously like blood to me.

The idea for this festival seems to have come out of the soul-searching that has taken place in nearby Perugia in the aftermath of the Meredith Kercher murder. It was in effect a satellite festival of the main UmbriaLibri literary festival, which takes place this coming weekend in Perugia and will be centered around the theme of evil. Mike and Daniela will be taking part in that, and they have also contributed to a specially commissioned anthology exploring the dark heart of Perugia, with a new story that brings their Napoleonic-era Prussian protagonist, magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis, to Perugia as part of his grand tour.

I was fortunate enough to be one of the English writers invited to take part in the first-ever Trevi Noir conference. Also representing UK crime writing were: Laura Wilson, whose latest novel, Stratton’s War, recently picked up the Crime Writers’ Association’s Ellis Peters Historical Award; Andrew Taylor, author of many books including the classic The American Boy, the Lydmouth series, and his most recent, Bleeding Heart Square; and Maxim Jakubowski, editor, bookseller (through the legendary Murder One bookshop), and noir author. Walter Donohue, editor at Faber and Faber, and Leslie Gardner, literary agent, also contributed.

Daniela De Gregorio, Roger “R.N.” Morris, and Michael G. Jacob

The conference was partly conceived as a confrontation between the Italian and Anglo-Saxon approaches to crime writing. Bridging the gap, perhaps, was the Italian-born, but U.S. resident, author Ben Pastor, author of two novels set in Hitler’s Germany, Lumen (1999) and Liar Moon (2001), as well as the Aelius Spartianus mysteries, published by St. Martin’s Minotaur. Other Italian authors included: Simone Sarasso, a graphic novelist as well as the author of a political thriller exploring possible state crimes, Confine di stato; Guglielmo Pispisa, author of La Terza Meta, whose novels also have a political aspect; Kai Zen, a literary collective, of which Guglielmo Pispisa is one quarter--Jadel Andreetto, Bruno Fiorini, and Aldo Soliani being the other three; Diego de Silva, who works in cinema, television, and theater, and is a novelist on top of it all (his book Voglio Guardere is available in English as I Want to Watch); and Patrick Fogli author of the Bologna-set thriller Lentamente prima di morire.

There seemed to be a view, at least among the UK contributors, that Italian crime writing is predominantly political, with the political idea or issue often being the starting point for the story. Whereas, perhaps, our approach is more character-driven. Perhaps there is something in this divide, although not having read any of the Italian authors I just listed, I can’t say for certain. The tone of the Italian panels was certainly very political, provoking a great deal of political controversy from the floor. And the more communal and collective culture of Italy, based around the family and its social extensions, and centering on political as well as regional groupings, does contrast somehow with the highly individualistic, personalized outlook of America and the UK.

It was certainly a stimulating and highly enjoyable event for those taking part. We were exceedingly well looked after, enjoying fabulous food and drink as well as engaging company. Congratulations to Mike and Daniela for organizing such a successful conference. It looks set to become an annual--and major--fixture in the international crime-fiction calendar.

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