Monday, December 08, 2008

Judge This Judge by His Crimes

(Editor’s note: Today we are adding “Michael Gregorio” to The Rap Sheet’s list of regular contributors. Gregorio, of course, is the joint pseudonym used by husband and wife Michael G. Jacob and Daniela De Gregorio, who have written three historical mysteries featuring early 19th-century Prussian magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis: Critique of Criminal Reason [2006], Days of Atonement [2007], and--due out next year--A Visible Darkness. Their first posting as members of our “Usual Suspects” team is the following interview.)

Giancarlo De Cataldo (shown at right) is many things, most notably a criminal court judge who works in Rome and is the author of several novels that have topped the Italian bestseller lists. He’s probably best recognized outside of Italy right now for having edited Crimini, an anthology of short Italian crime stories published by London-based Bitter Lemon Press. That book won rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, and has paved the way for the release of a longer work by De Cataldo alone, The Father and the Foreigner, which is due out next year in the United States from Europa Editions.

But for those of us in Italy, De Cataldo is immediately associated with 2002’s Romanzo Criminale (Crime Novel), a book which did much to change the face of crime-writing in this country. That remarkable work has become the pole star by which every contemporary Italian writer of noir now steers his ship, the sort of book that every one of them hopes to write. Romanzo Criminale has run through an unprecedented 21 editions in Italy, been adapted for film in 2005 (with Michele Placido directing), and more recently been serialized by SKY television to enthusiastic acclaim. In addition, De Cataldo writes book reviews for Italian newspapers, which is how my wife and I came to know him.

Earlier this month, I had the chance to interview De Cataldo on subjects ranging from his literary inspirations, to the strengths and weaknesses of Italian crime fiction, to his favorite British and American crime novelists.

Michael Gregorio: Giancarlo, how did you first begin writing fiction? You had, and have, a solid professional career as a judge, so what attracted you to fiction?

Giancarlo De Cataldo: I was a thin kid with glasses, a disaster on the football field. What else could I do to fill the time in Taranto, the small southern town where I was born? I started reading the adventure novels of Emilio Salgari, watching pirate movies, and I wanted to be a writer, a film director, or a racing-driver. … I became a judge because I was born into a solid middle-class family; any career that is not traditional is considered fancy. But I never stopped dreaming about becoming a great writer. Nowadays, I live many different lives--as a judge, writer, screenwriter, journalist, father, and husband. At an age 52, when a lot of people start to feel depressed, I still go to bed wondering what the hell I need to invent to have an interesting day tomorrow! I know I’m lucky, so I try not to exaggerate. It’s a hard life, but it’s the one that I have chosen.

MG: So where do you find the time to write?

GDC: You have to find time for the things that you believe in. When I was unknown, I wrote when I felt like it. Now, I write whenever I can.

MG: Finding time is one thing; finding inspiration is another. Many Italian magistrates, including yourself, [Michele] Giuttari and [Gianrico] Carofiglio, have proven very successful as crime writers, and not only in Italy. Do you find your stories in the cases that you handle on a daily basis?

GDC: Giuttari is a policeman, not a magistrate. And Carofiglio is now a member of Parliament, elected by the Democratic Party. So, the only writer-magistrate is me! But joking aside, I find characters more than stories in the Court, and I tend to work on faces and voices more than on plots. The plot comes afterwards.

MG: Is such professional experience a bonus for a writer who hopes to describe the mechanisms of crime in Italy?

GDC: In a general sense, personal experience is helpful when describing a crime scene. But anyone can study a crime scene on the Web, watch CSI, or read fiction these days. Writing (as you know very well, Michael!) is a different matter. It requires a sound technique and all the tricks of the trade.

MG: Which of your books has given you the greatest satisfaction? And how do you measure satisfaction in a published work?

GDC: Of course, Romanzo Criminale made me famous, and I will always be grateful for that. But I love another one of my books in a very special way: The Father and the Foreigner. It’s the story of the friendship between an Italian and a Lebanese, both of whom are the fathers of handicapped children. So, it’s a story with its roots in personal drama. I am so fond of it because many publishers refused it, and now it’s going to be made into a movie by Ricky Tognazzi, one of the few Italian directors who constantly works in America, both in cinema and television.

MG: Romanzo Criminale is now a cult book. It’s one of those novels that all Italians have to read, and in a country which, supposedly, reads very little and isn’t traditionally interested in crime fiction. Were you surprised by this remarkable success?

GDC: I never dreamt of anything so amazing! I started writing the book when I was 41, and I was 46 by the time I had finished it. I wasn’t very happy with things in that period. I kept asking myself: Do you really believe you’re a great writer? Show it to everyone! I was afraid that nobody would notice the book. I even told myself: This could be your last book, Giancarlo. If it doesn’t cut the ice, it’s time to call a halt. But I was lucky. Very lucky.

MG: Why do you think Romanzo Criminale made such an impact?

GDC: In the first place, Romanzo is more a historical novel which charts the links between the Street (the Underworld) and the Establishment (the “Mansion of Power,” as [Pier Paolo] Pasolini called it), than it is a crime novel, even if the structure is typical of crime fiction. And I think the reason for its success is that I dared write about some of the great mysteries of recent Italian history. It came after a long period of emptiness and silence in our popular literature. It acted as a catalyst. Many readers (and some writers) looked at Romanzo and said to themselves: Hey, we can do it! We can talk about our history, even in Italy!

MG: You are a regular newspaper reviewer of crime fiction. Not just of Italian books, but reviews of novels by British, American, German, and Scandinavian authors, too. Are there significant differences between these “national schools” of crime writing? Is there an “Italian” school? Then again, what can Italian writers learn from their foreign counterparts? And what should other writers be picking up from their Italian contemporaries?

GDC: I like to review books that I have enjoyed reading. In Italy we talk about “Italian noir” or “Mediterranean noir” (I was the first to use this expression about Massimo Carlotto’s books, and his publisher picked up on it). It is nothing more than a label, of course, a useful label (critics and journalists are such lazy guys!), but a label all the same. There is now a group of writers who are in interested in recent Italian history--an unbroken sequence of massacres, conspiracies, dark powers, political assassinations, and the people who carry them out, and crime fiction is the best way to deal with this fiery stuff. I am sure that something similar is happening in Spain, France, the UK (my beloved Ian Rankin, David Peace, and you, the Gregorios, who deal in your 19th-century investigations with the seeds of the Shoah, and the relationship between science and crime), Sweden, Denmark, and in many other countries. The crime stories that I love have this in common: they describe the limits of democracy, the crisis of the law, the shadowy borders between the clean men and the Underworld.

MG: Is there any one book which typifies the Italian style of crime-writing, a book that you would call the Italian crime novel, a book that everyone should read?

GDC: [Carlo Emilio] Gadda’s Pasticciaccio and [Leonardo] Sciascia’s works taught us the best way to deal with a crime story in Italian literature. We are weak in the “whodunit” department, but very strong when we stop trying to imitate the Anglo-Saxons and start searching for our own individual style of writing. Let’s have more Balzac and Sciascia, I say, more Dickens and Dostoevsky, and a bit less Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr!

MG: Is Roberto Saviano’s Gomorra, with its documentary style, strong regional overtones and heavy violence, the start of a new trend in Italian fiction, do you think?

GDC: Wu Ming, a group of writers from Bologna, call Gomorra an “unidentified writing object.” I agree with them. The impact of Gomorra on our culture is similar to that of Sciascia’s books about the Mafia in the ’60s: the novel reminds us of something that we had almost forgotten, or which we had taught ourselves to ignore. A vivid memory of the recent past is not something that Italians generally strive to cultivate.

MG: Many British crime writers consciously work within a well-defined literary tradition. Do such traditions exist within Italian crime-writing, or are Italian writers influenced more by emerging trends on the international scene? Who is more influential in Italy, Dante or James Ellroy?

GDC: Well, we do have classical mystery writers, but what we call Italian noir is quite different, as I tried to explain before. I think Ellroy is very influential, but you shouldn’t forget that we have a great epic tradition: we have the literature of the Italian Risorgimento (the war during the 19th century as Italy struggled to become a sovereign state), the years of the Resistance (World War II), and during the great industrial revolution of the ’60s (“The Boom,” as we call it). Pasolini’s last great unfinished novel, Petrolio, was about 30 years of corruption and political and criminal involvement. So, again, it’s a question of memory. In my opinion, it is impossible to define a precise border between crime writing and literature in Italy. Crime spread its seeds, both in writing and in society, and this “New Wave,” which includes Saviano and myself, hates any label, and any border.

MG: Andrea Camilleri sets his tales in Sicily, though he rarely mentions the Mafia. I view him as a sort of cozy Italian Agatha Christie--the scope of his writing is limited, and the plot runs along familiar lines. By contrast, your work vibrates with a sense of the street, and recent Italian history plays a central role.

GDC: I disagree with you about Camilleri. He is cunningly political, let’s say. The Mafia does appear in his historical novels, and sometimes in the [Inspector] Montalbano series, as well. OK, I am more rigorous in describing the street, but Camilleri’s great merit was to set Italian writers and readers free. For the first time, they could enjoy great pop literature in a country where writing was traditionally divided into “trash,” “trivial,” and the “grand masters.” I believe that we must step outside the concept of genres and traditions. We have invented a new kind of writing, not only in Italy, but wherever crime, politics, great characters, and wonderful love stories combine together. We are working hard to explore the changing world of our time, and that includes writing about the Mafia in Italy. I don’t like the good old traditional crime set in a closed room, the clever policeman, the intellectual thief. It feels old-fashioned, in my opinion. The real risk is mannerism: many authors write about a whore, a gang, a policeman, a psychotic killer, a corrupt politician, and they think they are writing great novels. Instead, these “genre” novels are often weak, conventional, and lacking in any real originality.

MG: Which British or American thriller writers do you admire? And which of their books would you like to have written?

GDC: I admire a lot of people. The classic Conan Doyle, the contemporary Ellroy, and many other “old masters” such as [Dashiell] Hammett, [Raymond] Chandler, Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich, Lawrence Block. I admire James Lee Burke, Ed McBain, Ruth Rendell, Patricia Highsmith, Elmore Leonard (who taught me how to thread “cool” elements into a dark story), the great Derek Raymond, David Peace (his Red Riding Quartet is absolutely terrific!), Robert Wilson (A Small Death in Lisbon and The Blind Man of Seville). I am a very keen reader, you know! And recently I have discovered Ian Rankin. He and I share a sense of atmosphere, I think. I recently read a novel of his (The Naming of the Dead) which has an amazing political and social plot, and takes place during the G8 meeting in Scotland in 2005. We have the same “take” on the mob underworld and their shady connections with the secret services and the corrupt side of power politics. That’s what I mean when I speak about great contemporary crime writing. You can find something similar in Italy in Massimo Carlotto’s books. And I vote for Inspector John Rebus as one of the most powerful fictional characters of the last 30 years!

MG: Which Italian crime story should every British or American reader be sure to read?

GDC: Apart from the Italian classics--Gadda’s Il pasticciaccio and Sciascia’s works--I strongly recommend Massimo Carlotto (Arrivederci amore ciao, Il corriere colombiano, Nessuna cortesia all’uscita), Carlo Lucarelli’s trilogy featuring Dr. De Luca of the Fascist Police, and, of course, Andrea Camilleri, regardless of your contrary opinion, Michael!

MG: Haven’t you forgotten a title there?

GDC: Well, OK, I hope they’ll read Romanzo Criminale, too …


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this! thanks for posting; i love noir mediterraneo

Roger Morris said...

Great to see Michael Gregorio joining the rap sheet team! Very interesting interview too.

Dana King said...

I'm delighted to see "Michael Gregorio" join the team. CRITIQUE OF CRIMINAL REASON was an exceptional book. I'll have to look for the others now.

AngoloNero said...

Well done, Michale & Daniela!