The Yellow and the Black

Tobias Jones

In Padua, on 20 January 1976, a young girl called Margherita Magello was repeatedly stabbed and left for dead. She was discovered by Massimo Carlotto, a 19-year-old student radical and member of Lotta Continua, who tried to save her, and, in doing so, got covered in her blood. She died, he was arrested and, a pawn in the struggle between Lotta Continua and the police, was tried for her murder. Just before sentence was pronounced, his lawyer advised him to run. He escaped to Paris and ended up in Mexico, where, in 1985, he was betrayed by a Mexican lawyer and extradited to Italy. Retried, he was found guilty and imprisoned until, in 1993, he was pardoned by the president.

Carlotto is now almost 50, a good-looking, beefy man, normally photographed with a cigar poking out from greying stubble. Last year a film about his life called Il Fuggiasco (‘The Fugitive’) came out in Italy. Since his release, Carlotto has reinvented himself as a writer of hugely popular thrillers. More than merely hard-boiled, his novels are sexy, seedy, cynical and nihilistic, but with moments of idealism. Thanks in part to Carlotto, noir has become the boom genre of Italian publishing. Einaudi have introduced two new imprints, Stile libero and Stile libero Noir. The Sicilian publisher Sellerio is permanently at the top of the bestseller lists thanks to the octogenarian Andrea Camilleri, whose books have also been stylishly adapted for television. Carlo Lucarelli – co-editor of Stile libero Noir and another bestselling writer of thrillers – fronts a TV programme about real murder cases.

The Italian public seem permanently hungry for gialli. In bookshops you find shelf on shelf of Follett and Forsyth translations, as well as Italian thrillers. And when it comes to real-life gialli, practically every news programme announces ‘a gripping new thriller unravelling’ somewhere. Sub judice is ignored as bloodstains, bullet holes and murder weapons are shown, and reporters chase mourning mothers down the street, microphone in hand. As Hitchcock once said, ‘television has brought murder back into the home – where it belongs.’

The greatest asset of the Italian thriller is that the reader doesn’t need to suspend disbelief. So many astonishing and intricate crimes seem to take place in the country that the fictional ones appear perfectly probable. In some thrillers fictional mysteries are blended in with real ones. Carlotto, in his novels, hovers between reality and invention. In the postscript to The Colombian Mule he describes the man on whom one of the characters is based and outlines the techniques he and his fellow prisoners used to protect themselves from sexual predators (‘two of us would wash while the third stood guard, a bathrobe rolled round his left arm and the handle of a frying pan, filed to razor sharpness, clasped in his right hand’). In an author’s note at the end of The Shape of Water, Camilleri says that his book is fiction, even though ‘in recent years reality has seemed bent on surpassing the imagination, if not entirely abolishing it.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in