Andare, Partire, Tornare

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Italy and the Police Procedural: Strange Bedfellows?

I donít read great slews of mysteries, but there are several mystery authors that have caught me Ė I own all of their books, and reread them frequently. Iím always on the lookout for more authors to add, and so I frequently find myself picking up books and hoping that they work for me. Iím also a raving Italiophile (as some may have noticed), so itís not hard to believe that eventually, Iíd pick up some mysteries set in Italy. I read Ian Pearsí art history mysteries, which are very light and fun and which I forget the second I put down. I read Michael Dibdenís bleak tales of corruption and murder, and after a few months, sold all the books off because I couldnít bear to reread them. And now, I have just read Donna Leonís book Uniform Justice, set in Venice. (Note: mild spoilers for the ending of this book will appear here.) Uniform Justice has sent me off on a trail of thought about how well, exactly, the genre of the mystery Ė or maybe, to be more specific, the police prodecural Ė works when done with an Italian policeman in Italy.

I read mysteries for a range of reasons Ė good characters moving through an interesting plot, with a hope of justice at the end of it all. Good characters are not easy to find, but theyíre out there, along with plots that, if not intricate and twisty, at least move the pace of the story along so a reader is caught up in it. But where I seem to be stuck with all the above examples of Italian mysteries, is the hope of justice at the resolution of the book. I will note that Pearsí books generally have the bad guy taken into custody, or at least their ill-gotten gains stripped from them. But with the Dibden books and the Leon book I just finished reading, justice is an alien concept, and this fact is intrinsically linked to the way Italian society functions. What am I to do with a story that closes with remarks like this:

ďYouíll do whatever I say?í Moro asked.
ďYes.Ē
ďRegardless of the law or justice?Ē Moroís anger was undisguised now.
Brunetti had no taste for this, not any longer.
ďThereís no justice here, Dottore,Ē he said, frightened to realize that he meant not only for this man and his family, but for this city, and this country, and their lives.Ē

Frankly, I find that as depressing as hell. But I have questions that are unanswered about the whole phonomenon. First of all, I donít think Iíve necessarily read the majority, or even a representative sample of mysteries set in Italy. Secondly, all of these stories are written by foreigners. Donna Leon appears to be British, Australian, or American (although she lives in Italy now), Ian Pears and Michael Dibden are British, and I read a handfull of very badly written ones set in Venice and Florence, written by an American. The hallmark of all these books (except that last group, which were so fluffy and meaningless that I donít want to use them as examples of anything) is that the police officer in charge of the investigation is either the only honest man in the police department (or possibly one of a handful), and is surrounded by superiors who want to use his findings for their own advancment and stab him in the back, or juniors who want to use the investigation to further their own careers and stab him in the back. Plus, the assumption of honesty in any of these people absolutely cannot be made; they mostly are attempting to gain or hold power, money, and social status and will lie, change official documents, or end investigations that are doing too much muckraking in order to do so. P.D. Jamesí books are bleak as any out there, but I can assume, at least, that Adam Dalgaleish and his fellow officers are, at the most basic levels, honest and working to see justice done.

What I want to know is if cultural attitudes make Italy a bad place to set a police procedural. Itís possible that Italians, who are hampered by a government that seems to delight in making inane rules for the fun of it, simply have such a strained existence with authority that the idea of the policeman being the hero doesnít work as well as it does in America and England. It could be that these foreign writers are seeing this aspect of Italian culture accurately, but are exaggerating things to make for a more interesting story. Possibly, theyíre all full of baloney. I have no way of knowing, unless a kind Italian reader happens to stop by. Itís hard to sort out stereotpes from truths, so I feel that Iím either being too easily led by these writers, and Italy isnít a seething pool of corruption around every corner, or Iím being naÔve, and expecting everybody to be as interested in getting the bad guy as Americans are. In my mind, when you have a murder in a book, it cries out for justice, or at the very least, a good reason why justice canít be served. Is this my American bias talking? I grew up in the Philippines, which is a beehive of corruption and bribery. My father brought home stories of people trying to give him a stack of money and cooler full of fresh fish in exchange for a an American visa. Maybe Iím just not understanding that the majority of the world works this way, and indeed America does as well and the ideal of the honest cop is more laughable than legit. (Lord knows, there have been plenty of stories about corrupt cops Ė but in many cases, theyíre brought down by honest ones.) Somebody is reading and enjoying these books - Dibden and Leon both seem to have impressed the critics - so is it that I'm reading the books for the wrong reasons?

Iíd love some feedback on this. I realize it sounds rather plaintive, but I was struggling to finish the Donna Leon book for some reason, and then, as I closed it, realized that the ending hadnít been a surprise to me at all. I was subconsciously expecting an ending like the one I got, and I want to know why that is.

10:34 a.m. - 2005-03-22

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