Tuesday, September 14, 2021

The unknown secret of Italian Giallo

"Italian Giallo" is the definition by which the world remembers the revolutionary, shocking thrillers made in Italy in the 70's that would set the base for psychothrillers of the 80's and sometimes would mix serial killers with supernatural elements, although the word "giallo" originally meant classic murder mysteries and detective stories. Director Mario Bava was the first to lead Italian mystery movies in a new direction in the 60's, but the real Italian Giallo phenomenon started in 1970 with the huge success of Dario Argento's "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage". Not only this movie, credited to Argento both as writer and director, heavily influenced other Italian directors (Aldo Lado, Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino... mentioning only the ones I had the pleasure of meeting personally, but there are many, many more); it is also said to have inspired Alfred Hitchcock while making "Frenzy".
So, Dario Argento is undoubtedly the father of Italian Giallo.
But is he the only one?
On Sept. 11th, 2021, during the "Premio Torre Crawford" Festival in San Nicola Arcella (Italy), guest Aldo Lado tells a different story, which has been recently published in France, in Laure Charcossey's book "Conversation avec Aldo Lado", but was never previously heard in Italy.

Moment of revelation: Lado and Cappi in the TV news 

Let's go back to the 60's. Dario Argento is the writer of Maurizio Lucidi's war movie "Probabilità Zero", filmed in (then) Yugoslavia, with Aldo Lado as assistant director. According to Lado, Argento tells him he'd like to make a movie from Fredric Brown's "The Screaming Mimi" but he hasn't been able to obtain film rights for the novel. Lado reads the book and doesn't see it as film material, except for one thing: in the book, a man witnesses a murder and not the murderer, the murderer thinks the witness has seen it all. That would really work.
So - said Lado last saturday - they start working together on a film project of their own and, in a restaurant in Rome, they come up with a title which will become famous: "L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo". Then Lado goes back working as assistant director on various films all over the world, later including "The Conformist" by Bernardo Bertolucci, from a novel by Alberto Moravia. According to Lado, he doesn't hear about "The Bird" till, back in Italy, he reads that Argento is working on "their" film; Argento wouldn't return his calls and the movie is released only with Argento's name as writer. The lack of credit, says Lado, "delayed my career for three or four years". He adds "I didn't speak with Dario for over forty years".
In 1971 Lado is the director of an Italian Giallo of his own, filmed in Prague as "Malastrana", but the distributors choose a different title, "The Short Night of the Butterflies"; and, since director Duccio Tessari is releasing his "The Bloodstained Butterfly", the title is changed again into "The Short Night of the Glass Dolls", reminding of the "crystal plumage" of Argento's film. Meanwhile Lado has been working with Bertolucci on the project of "Last Tango in Paris", delayed because Marlon Brando got himself hired by Francis Ford Coppola in "The Godfather". Lado will miss "Tango", since he is called to film in Venice - the city where he grew up - his second giallo, "Who Saw Her Die".
He won't make another giallo - "I didn't like to make the same film twice" - although some thrilling elements appear in the shocking, highly political movie "Last Stop of the Night Train". He will later be back to something similar to giallo with a few tv productions and the film "Il notturno di Chopin". Meanwhile he adapts various novels for the screen, including one by Moravia,  "La disubbidienza". He later becomes a film producer in France and currently lives near Rome, writing novels. He also published in English the book "The Movies You Will Never See", a collection of original unused film stories of his.
Quentin Tarantino said that his two giallo movies and "Last Stop of the Night Train" are enough to consider him one of the great Italian directors. But maybe a paragraph of the history of Italian cinema should be rewritten and Dario Argento would not be the only father of Italian Giallo.

Sept. 14th, 2021

Friday, July 16, 2021

F. M. Crawford, the American writer from Italy

Torre Crawford, photo by A. C. Cappi

American writer Francis Marion Crawford (1854-1909) was a bestselling author in the late XIX-early XX. century. Today he's remembered mostly for his gothic stories, a comparatively small part of his works. Born in Tuscany, he established himself in Southern Italy, living in Sant'Agnello, Campania, and spending his summers in San Nicola Arcella, Calabria. Here he used to live in a 16th century tower that turned out to be the setting for one of the most celebrated gothic stories ever, For the Blood is the Life; since then, the tower is known as Torre Crawford.
In 2019, 110 years after his death, someone in the Calabrian town and elsewhere in Italy volunteered to create a literary contest - open to writers in Italian language - and a festival inspired by F. M. Crawford.
The first edition of Premio Torre Crawford was celebrated in San Nicola Arcella on September 19th, 2020. taking advantage of a pause in the pandemic lockdown: winners of the contest, writers and performers came to town. I edited a book in Italian which includes my translation of Crawford's story set in the town - For the Blood is the Life - a novelette by horrow/thriller top writer Cristiana Astori and the selected short stories by contestants, all inspired by the title of Crawford's story. For those who can read Italian, the book Perché il sangue è la vita (Oakmond Publishing) is available both for kindle and as an actual book on Amazon all over the world.

The second edition of Premio Torre Crawford is taking place in September 10th- 11th-12th, 2021. Guests include writer Alda Teodorani, about whom director Dario Argento declared "her stories feel like my deepest nightmares" and whose work is studied in European and American universities; master film director Aldo Lado; writer-actress Giada Trebeschi and musician-actor Giorgio Rizzo, whose short film Mia won in May 2021 at the Cineville Calcutta Global Cinefest: you can see it here. It almost seems (somehow) inspired by the same theme as tihis year's literary contest.
Because this year the Premio Torre Crawford contest and subsequent book are based on a quote from Crawford's story By the Waters of Paradise: "Falling in love with a ghost." The short story collection Innamorarsi di un fantasma will be soon available on Amazon for kindle and on paper from Oakmond Publishing, and will include my Italian translation of Crawford's abovementioned story, a short story by Alda Teodorani and fourteen short stories by the winners of the literary contest.
The following is a piece I wrote about F. M. Crawford in summer 2020 for the Italian blog Borderfiction Zone.

It was his destiny to become a genre writer and a sui generis writer. His father was American artist Thomas Crawford, one of whose statues decorates the Washington DC Capitol. Thomas moved to Rome in 1835 and in 1844 married Louisa Ward, (sister of American poet Julia Ward, known for her antislavery position and the text for Battle Hymn of the Republic). The Crawfords had four children. Three of them would dedicate themselves to literature: Anne Crawford von Rabe (b. 1846), Mary Crawford Fraser (b. 1851) and Francis Marion Crawford, born in Bagni di Lucca, Tuscany, in 1854.
Francis Marion's education was international: he studied in the US, in Cambridge, Britain, in Heidelberg, Germany and in Rome, at La Sapienza university. His family was protestant, but he became a catholic in 1880 and in 1884 married Elizabeth Berdan (in a French church in Istanbul, I read somewhere). Meanwhile he had spent two years in India and when he was back in 1882, he had published his first novel, Mr. Isaacs, based on this experience Success led him to keep on writing. He lived in Italy since 1883: first in Sorrento, then in Sant’Agnello (Napoli) at Villa Crawford. Later in San Nicola Arcella (Cosenza) he aquired an ancient Spanish tower which would be named Torre Crawford after him. From time to time he crossed the ocean to lecture in the US. During one of this trips, he caught a lung illness that would undermine his health forever.
At the top of his career, he had sold an extimated 600.000 copies, becoming a bestselling author of his time. His vision of literature was one of intelligent entertainment. He was not ashamed of dealing with adventure, love or mystery. He considered books as pocket-size theatre.
His work in superantural fiction would even influence H. P. Lovecraft, a reader of his. Crawford's bibliography includes historical novels and several books set in Italy, getting him close to writers of the Italian "Verismo" current. He died in 1909, leaving a legacy of over fifty books and four plays.

One of his best known stories was written and set in San Nicola Arcella in 1905: For the Blood is the Life, a title taken from the Bible. It's one of the world's most famour vampire stories, more exactly female vampire stories. It should be noted that another famous stories of  this kind was written by his sister Anne Crawford, who had published in 1891 A Mystery of the Campagna.
While in Anne's story, as well as in the previous Carmilla by Le Fanu (1872) the vampire has ancient origins, in For the Blood is the Life we witness the birth of the creature; before becoming a predator, she's a victim herself, of a murder committed to hide a theft: one of the many elements of social criticism in the story. It might be possible that, while writing about the rules of rural Italy - with arranged marriages and economic marginalization - he was also thinking about his American middle-class readers.
As it frequently happens in gothic stories, For the Blood is the Life is developed on two different narrative levels, the one of the narrator and the one of the narration: present, when Crawford himself nonchalantly explains to his guest on top of the tower the mysterious phenomenon they see; and past, up to the innatural love story between Angelo - a stranger in his own town - and Cristina, an independent, unconventional girl who becomes a damned in spite of herself but still keeps an innocente of her own. Sexual innuendos are evident but understated, with a modesty somehow both catholic and victorian. Nevertheless, the story maintains an extremely modern value, as classics always do.

Coming soon: F. M. Crawford's Italian legacy

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Emilio Salgari, master of adventure

April 25th is an important date in Italy: in 1945, it marked the end of World War II and freedom from fascism. But in 1911 - 110 years ago today - it was also the day one of Italy's most influential writers died. Emilio Salgari was an author of bestsellers but, exploited by publishers and overcome by financial problems, he killed himself with a razor blade.
In spite of his personal tragedy. many of his works have been in print ever since; some of them were later turned into films, comics and tv series. Translated into other languages - Spanish, for instance - they had a strong impact even on the political side: Ernesto "Che" Guevara read Salgari and learnt from him.
But most of all, for Italian readers, Salgari was a household tradition all over the 20th century: although his books were not conceived either as children's or young adults' literature, they were passed fron generation to generation, to boys and girls alike - with no censorship even during the fascist regime - and were usually the first novels we read, out first approach to literature and, even if the word was still unknown to us, to "pulp".

Born in Verona on August 21, 1862, Emilio Salgari started writing at an early age. At 20 he publishd on newspapers and weekly magazines his first serialized novels, later re-edited as proper books. Their locations were mostly foreign, exotic countries, often in contemporary war or guerrilla settings. Salgari let his readers believe he had been sailing world-wide and had first-hand knowledge of the places he described.
In fact he only lived in Verona, Venice, Genova and Turin and never left Italy. But he spent a lot of time in local public libraries studying newspapers and books, so much that he could describe faraway places in vivid details. He often wrote about turmoils in what would later be called the Third World from an indigenous, anti-colonialistic point of view. Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Mexican novelist of the so called neo-aventura and biographer of Che Guevara, once said "I learnt more about anti-imperialism from Salgari than from the Che". Authors like Isabel Allende, Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Madrid or Gabriel Garcia Marquez have declared themselves Salgari readers.
Between 1882 and 1911 the Italian writer published dozens of novels, many of them featuring Sandokan, by birth a Malaysian prince, who becomes a pirate to fight colonialism along with Portuguese adventurer Yanez de Gomera; while Sandokan is always ready for action and battle, Yanez is more keen to light himself a cigarette and rationally consider the situation. Another famous saga follows the family of the Black Corsair, an Italian count who becomes a Tortuga corsair seeking a personal revenge. Salgari wrote more historical and contemporary adventure books, including western novels, long before spaghetti western.
He was somehow considered a rival of French author Jules Verne and that might be the reason why, among Salgari's standalone books, there is also one science-fiction novel: in Le meraviglie del 2000 ("The Wonders of 2000") a rich American, disiillusioned about his time, decides to go into hibernation and wakes up in 2003 to see how the world has changed. In the novel you can even read about something like a flat-screen smart-tv with an Internet connection. The book was originally published in 1907 under the pen name Guido Altieri (while years later a real Altieri, Sergio D. known as Alan D. Altieri, would become one of the masters of Italian science-fiction).

Salgari's success was also his curse. His three-books-per-year contract meant a lot of research work (and Internet didn't really exist at the time). He was a goldmine for his publishers but not so much for himself, since he had to support a wife - actress Ida Peruzzi, who fell ill in 1903 and would die in a mental institution in 1922 - and four children. Depression, wine, hard work and cigarettes were his only company, until he chose the same way out his father had taken years before: suicide. In one of his farewell letters he announced he was "breaking his pen" and accused his publishers of exploiting him.
If so it was, his death didn't stop it. Some novels were published posthumously, other books were completed by his son Omar and a few more continuation novels were written by writers Emilio Fancelli and Luigi Motta. Even the line of tragedies went on with Salgari's daughter Fatima, who died of tuberculosis in 1914, and his sons: Nadir died in a motorbike accident in 1936, while the other two, Romero and Omar, both killed themselves in 1931 and 1963.
Nevertheless, Salgari was still the bestselling Italian author at least well into the 1970's. The first movies officially based on his books - from the Black Corsair saga - were made one century ago, in 1921; many more were filmed, including three by director Umberto Lenzi in the 60's. In 1976 the tv series Sandokan directed by Sergio Sollima and starring Kabir Bedi led to a Salgari revival and to more films and tv sequels, one of them by Enzo G. Castellari in 1996. Moreover, the adjective salgariano still describes a certain kind of pulp-style adventure novel. The writer's influence still hangs on in the works of Italian novelists and comics authors.
Unluckily, Salgari is now one of the victims of the cultural "anti-pulp" phenomenon I already described in a previous post: parents no longer pass their Sandokan books to their children and nobody would teach about the Black Corsair in schools. So the new generations miss the entrance to a world of adventures... and books. Salgari didn't really die on April 25th, 1911, but we really need to keep him alive today.

Art by A. Della Valle

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Eurospy: from France to Italy

OSS117 collected novels (1968), art by Ferenc Pinter

As you probably have guessed, by "europulp" I define the kind of popular fiction (in literature, comics, TV and movies) coming from western continental Europe and not in English language. Since the subject is much wider than you might think, I plan to deal (mostly) with the Mediterranean area, which I'm more familiar with. In this blog "pulp" is neither a derogative word, nor the definition employed in Italy in the 90's to brand a few authors that happened to be somehow close to the noir/horror genres.
There's a particular side of europulp which I decided to call "eurospy".

The term "eurospy" has been used for the 1960's Italian-French-Spanish-German film co-productions featuring secret agents. A few of those movies were based on French novels, among them the ones by Jean Bruce. His character was Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, aka OSS117, who had appeared in books since 1949 and on screen since 1957, before Ian Fleming's 007. Just like James Bond, OSS117 is now expected in a new movie as soon as European theatres will open after the Covid-19 pandemic.
But, with due exceptions, most of those 60's movies were just exploitation, parodies or camp versions of the James Bond phenomenon. Some viewers might remember Operation Kid Brother, known in Italy as OK Connery (1967), starring Neil Connery (Sean's real brother) as "the famous secret agent's brother", plus several actors from the Bond films. Or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (1966), starring spaghetti western star Giuliano Gemma and bearing the same title as a song from Thunderball (1965). Moreover, most ot the secret agents were voiced in Italy by Pino Locchi, one of the stars of Italian dubbing, who also gave his voice to Sean Connery (and later both George Lazenby and Roger Moore) in the Bond films.
Eurospy movies were often marketed in Italy with titles containing the numbers 070, 077 or 777, in the hope they might be mistaken for 007 movies, even when based on characters such as Francis Coplan, agent FX18, from the French novels by Paul Kenny, that had been published in Italy. But the distributors didn't mind that.

In the end, somehow, eurospy contaminated the original Bond movies: not only You Only Live Twice (1967) looked a lot like a high-budget eurospy set in Japan, but later in time some of the Bond action sequences would borrow ideas, stunts and gags from it: see for instance the ski pursuit in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and For Your Eyes Only (1981).
Many of the 60's eurospy directors - I'd say most of them - were Italian and worked as well on spaghetti western in the 60's and in giallo or poliziottesco in the 70's. But in the 60's, spy movies had a huge market in Italy, not only due to Bondmania, but because spy stories were a familiar item to readers. already mentioned the Italian Segretissimo book series, entirely devoted to the subgenre, from publisher Mondadori. British, American and French spy stories were a common reading in Italy, thanks to Mondadori, Garzanti and a few other publishers.
Both in France and Italy those novels were considered romans de gare, romanzi ferroviari, the kind of pocket-books you buy in a newsstand at a railway station (or an airport). In Italy Segretissimo was actualy a hybrid between a book and a magazine, following the succesful formula of Il Giallo Mondadori (for detective novels) and Urania (for science-fiction novels) from the same publisher: a format similar to Jerry Cotton and Perry Rhodan in Germany.
But, unlike the eurospy movies, even the most pulp-style spy novels had a comparatively serious approach, being inspired by the daily chronicles of the Cold War, often mixed with a certain amount of exotic adventure. That too sounded familiar to Italian readers. When I started reading Ian Fleming - published in Italy by Garzanti, at the time - I noticed how much he unknowingly had in common with Italy's great adventure writer Emilio Salgari (1862-1911), whose influence is undeniable in many Italian spywriters today: Stefano Di Marino has often been called "the modern Salgari".

The latest reprint of S.A.S. vol.1 (2015)

But there were no Italian spywriters at the time. As I'm explaining in the posts about giallo in this blog, Italian readers were not interested in thrillers - of any kind - by Italian authors and they wouldn't be for a very long time.
For decades, eurospy novels were essentially made in France. featuring heroes born in Europe or of European descent, though they often operated worldwide for US intelligence agencies. Bruce's OSS 117 was a former OSS agent working for the CIA.
The top bestselling spywriter from France was - and still is - the late Gérard De Villiers, creator of S.A.S. Malko Linge, Austrian prince and contractor for the CIA. The 200 S.A.S. novels published between 1965 and 2013 have been noted for their sexual content (though sex is not so unusual in espionage, is it?) and might not be always considered politically correct. But another key element stands out: the stories usually deal with real international tensions and events, of which De Villiers gave his own interpretation. Sometimes his solution of unsolved cases of espionage turned out to be correct.
It was the continuing success of De Villiers and Segretissimo in Italy that would finally open the way to Italian spywriters.

To be continued...

Thursday, April 15, 2021

And Edgar created europulp

April 1841, 180 years ago: in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA: on The Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine, Edgar Allan Poe's The Murders of the Rue Morgue is published for the first time. Detective story was born, and much more.

Some say the first mystery story ever is the Abel murder case in the Bible. But - as my friend A. G. Pinketts once put it - since Adam and Eve were supporting each other's alibi, only one suspect was left and you didn't need to be all-knowing to find the murderer.
Of course murders and detection are present in plays from Sophocles (think about Oedipus Rex) to Shakespeare, though sometimes with supernatural elements. There was something similar to detective stories in XVIII and early XIX centuries.
But Poe created the first detective. Moreover, one with an assistant-biographer whose identity is not specified: it might even be Poe himself, if he had ever been in Paris.
This useful technique helps the reader: since the detective is too smart to be immediately understood, the assistant-biographer poses him inside the story the same questions the reader would pose.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will repeat the scheme with Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. Agatha Christie will use it too: Hercule Poirot has several narrators and assistants in his cases and in a book of hers she brilliantly takes advantage of the cliché. Rex Stout will find another original way: the classic whodunit-style detective Nero Wolfe's assistant-narrator is the modern harboiled detective Archie Goodwin.

At the same time Poe invents the nameless narrator, which will be used by Dashiell Hammett in his Continental Op stories, by Len Deighton with the anonymous secret agent in his first spy novels (later named Harry Palmer in the movies) and by Bill Pronzini with his Nameless Detective series.
Hardboiled detectives are not so smart as their whodunit-style colleagues, so they can explain themselves to readers with no go-between, but they don't need to tell you their real name. (Oh, I used this trick too in my BookHunter series.)
Moreover, since Hammett's Continental Op novel Red Harvest inspired both Akira Kurosawa's film Yojimbo (where Toshiro Mifune plays a nameless samurai) and Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, we might even say that Poe's story is somehow the distant origin of Clint Eastwood's western icon of the "nameless stranger".

It's not just that. The Murders of the Rue Morgue is the first time in literature that professional policemen, baffled by a mystery they cannot solve, call for the help of an amateur sleuth, in this case chevalier Auguste Dupin. They'll do it again in two more Dupin stories, The Mystery of Marie Roget and The Purloined Letter. (It's a pity such an important character appeared so briefly; that's why my friend Rino Casazza and I wrote (in Italian) a few more stories about an old-age Dupin, having him challenge Sherlock Holmes and face a criminal resembling Allain & Souvestre's Fantômas).
The stories are set in Paris and there's a reson why the police needs external help: in the real world, the Sûrété had been created only about thirty years before and originally led by former criminal and snitch Eugène-François Vidocq, who after all, would be a good cop: set a thief to catch a thief, as they say. But you wouldn't expect such a police force to solve sophisticated mysteries.
Since then all famous literary amateur detectives were asked to help the police. This doesn't happen in real life, of course. The need for a more realistic approach led to hardboiled detective stories, to police stories (featuring inspectors or "precincts", where law enforcement was no longer incompetent) and even to crime stories from an outlaw's point of view.
But having his detective investigating in Paris turned out to be useful when Poe based his second Dupin story on a real case, the murder of Mary Rogers in New York. In The Mystery of Marie Roget, the writer was able to criticize police work by investigating the real crime in a fictionalized version... and reaching a solution that was very similar to the real one, before the police did. Detective stories got mixed with true crime.
Dupin's undisputable logic is surprising, considering that Poe was the master of nightmare and irrational (and, after all, the first story has a bit of horror in it). But it's twice as surprising if we consider Dupin's postmodern methods: the detective is not just investigating the case, but also the failure of the previous investigation by the police. He looks where the cops - being cops - haven't been looking. From this angle, Dupin appears much more advanced than Holmes.
And it all started in Rue Morgue.

Finally, I would say that Poe, by setting his stories in Europe, invented "europulp". Paris was an exotic location for American readers in 1841, as much as the unnamed Italian town in The Masque of the Red Death, published in May 1842 on the same magazine. Europe was already the perfect continent to set a gothic story, but for the first time it was used for a crime story. Only in June 1842 Eugène Sue would start publishing his Les mystères de Paris, influenced by Vidocq's memoirs but also by American popular literature.
European and American fiction went on influencing each other since then: from Poe's detective to British detectives and back to American detectives; from French feuilleton to American pulp magazines; from US hardboiled to French noir and US western to spaghetti western which in return would influence US western in the 70's; and US crime movies in the 70's inspiring the poliziottesco movies in Italy... Even before globalization, the mutual exploitation of genres was a continous source of inspiration.
Take the Hayes code in the US: the old Hollywood rules did not allow a caper to end with robbers happily enjoying their loot, unlike Fantômas in Paris. But in 1953 Paris writers Auguste Le Breton, with the novel Rififi, and Albert Simonin, with the novel Touchez pas au grisbi, both chose creatively to use the rules of Hollywood movies for the ending of their crime stories, which were filmed succesfully the following year.
The first mystery writer to play on both sides of the Atlantic was Poe.
So, 180 years ago, while creating the first modern detective story, Edgar also unknowingly invented what I call "europulp".

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Giallo: black shirts and yellow books

In the 1930’s, detective novels published by Mondadori were a huge thrill for Italian readers, both in I Libri Gialli in bookshops, with their yellow jacket, and I Gialli Economici in newstands with a yellow cover.
But the fascist regime didn’t approve.
First: foreign mystery stories were regarded with suspicion as a dangerous product of anglo-saxon culture. Italy's only international friend was Hitler's Germany, from which the so-called "racial laws" were imported in 1938, first step toward the Holocaust. Both countries partnered - on the antidemocratic side, of course - in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) helping local dictator Franco rise to power and expanding fascism in Europe.
Second: you couldn’t set a detective novel in Italy, since the official line was that crime didn’t belong in our sunny country. News about crime in the media were censored and the "Monster of Sarzana" case (1937-38) was a big embarrassment, especially when the murderer turned out to be a 15-year-old named William - yes, an English name! - Vizzardelli, reportedly inspired by Dostojevskij's Crime and Punishment.
While reading a foreign detective novel was becoming suspicious, writing a detective novel was worse. It was not easy being a mystery writer in Italy in the Era Fascista (the "Fascist Age").
Augusto De Angelis, creator of Italy’s first literary serial police detective – Milan’s commissario De Vincenzis – didn’t share the views of the regime. But, due to his political opinions, he would later be labeled an antifascist, imprisoned and finally beaten to death in 1944. Not just because he was a mystery writer: my antifascist grandfather didn't write books, but he was beaten too and barely survived.

Another writer, Giorgio Scerbanenco – later the master of Italian noir literature – had to replace Milan with Boston as the location for his early libri gialli published by Mondadori. He had never been in the US, but he wasn’t allowed to write about murders in Italy.
In the end, readers were led to believe that no crime novel could ever be set in Italy. With e few exceptions, it would take almost sixty years to make them change their mind.
Meanwhile the Minculpop (the Ministry of Popular Culture) applied pressure on Mondadori, forcing the publisher to close the Gialli.
A few mystery novels by Rex Stout, De Angelis and others still appeared in other book series (for instance, in I Romanzi della Palma; a palmtree was the logo of Mondadori at the time), without fascist censors noticing them, but at last the country was "safe" from gialli.
Crowds cheered when in 1940 Mussolini decided to join his German friend in conquering the world and led Italy into self-destruction and death. Real death.

In 1946, with freedom and democracy, Il Giallo Mondadori was back in newsstands as a weekly magazine. Detective stories were a hot item again. But was there still a place for Italian authors, after so many years of fascist propaganda?

To be continued...

Monday, April 12, 2021

Diva (1981)

About forty years ago - on March 11th, 1981, according to IMDB - the French thriller Diva by director Jean-Jacques Beineix was released in theatres. "Hitchcockland", commented Time magazine about one year later, when the film opened in the US. More than that, Diva was the movie that - before Blade Runner - defined what cinema of the 80's should look like. A masterpiece with no famous stars that condensed brilliant casting, innovative music score (by Vladimir Cosma, including a famous aria from La Wally by Alfredo Catalani), creative set design. marvelous photography on location in Paris and Normandy, and a perfect plot from a 1979 novel by Delacorta, adapted by Beineix and Belgian novel and comic book author Jean Van Hamme.

The original novel is the second in a series by Swiss Zen master Daniel Odier, writing under the name Delacorta. His characters are Serge Gorodish, former pianist and conman, and his underage girlfriend Alba, with whom he has a non-sexual relationship. Their film versions are slightly more surreal: Alba (Thuy Ann Luu) is a vietnamese petty thief and model in a multiethnic Paris, while nothing is revealed about Gorodish (Richard Bohringer), except his music culture, his classic education ("Abyssus abyssum invocat", he quotes in Latin from the Bible) and his Zen background, revealed in the scene of "le zen dans l'art de la tartine".
Later in the film we discover that Gorodish knows how to move in the dangerous Parisian milieu. He becomes a mythic figure, a guardian angel driving a white Traction Avant, the car of both cops and robbers.
There's really something of Hitchcock movies in the film's flawed main character, Jules (Frédéric Andréi), a young postman who commits two crimes out of love: first, he makes a bootleg recording at a concert of his favourite diva, African-American soprano Cynthia Hawkins (real opera singer and stunning actress Whilelmenia Wiggins Fernandez), who has always refused to put her voice on record; then he steals her dress from the dressing room after the concert, and has it worn by a black prostitute picked up in a street, before having it cleaned and giving it back to Cynthia.
But a couple of crooked Taiwanese record company executives know about the bootleg and plan to steal it, in order to blackmail the singer into making a studio record with them, or they'll release it anyway.
This would be good enough for a thriller movie, but another plot intertwines with the first: Nadia Kalanski (Chantal Deruaz), former lover of corrupt inspector Jean Saporta (Jacques Fabbri), has recorded on tape everything she knows about the drug and prostitution ring led by the top cop. Before she's killed by the gang's two hitmen - L'Antillais (Gérard Darmon) and the antisocial Le Curé (Dominque Pinon), master of icepick throwing -  Nadia drops the compromising cassette in the pocket of a postman's scooter. Yes, the same postman.
Young Jules becomes the target of the Taiwanese executives, the ruthless killers and the cops, including policewoman Paula (Anny Romand). After being chased in the streets of Paris and the metro, he nearly gets killed by Le Curé. The story might have a very unhappy ending, but Gorodish steps in like a deus ex machina, as clever as Parker in a Richard Stark novel.

As writer and film expert Stefano Di Marino recently noted in a Facebook post about the movie (that led me to see it again after a long time), both female lead characters, Alba and Cynthia, are non-white, long before anybody started talking about inclusion and diversity: a movie before its time. And to prove the casting is perfect, I'll mention the brief scene of Nadia's escape: her sudden expression when she sees the two hitmen stalking her tells a long traumatic story of violence and captivity in just one brief second.
After forty years, Diva is still an unmissable lesson in europulp filmmaking and storytelling.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Why Italy hates pulp


If you have a look today in Italian newsstands, you might think little has changed here since the Sixties... and that would be great, if you love thrillers, western, science-fiction and everything I call "pulp" in this blog. And I don't mean "pulp" in an offensive way. Of course, if you don't like pulp, I guess you wouldn't be reading this post.

Let's start from the picture above, taken yesterday morning, April 7th, 2021, after I was back from my newsstand in the Niguarda neighborhood in Milan, Italy. You see the latest new monthly issue and special issue of Tex, Italy's bestselling comics since 1948: a western series by Italian authors, that was popular long before spaghetti westerns existed; its publisher, Sergio Bonelli Editore, which is now celebrating its 80 years, is the biggest comics publisher in Italy.
You see also the latest spy thrillers from Segretissimo by Arnoldo Mondadori Editore (where the world giallo for thrillers was born, as I explained here). The special issue contains two novels (one a reprint, the other a new one) of the Il Professionista series by Stephen Gunn, pen name of my friend Stefano Di Marino, who's been writing for over thirty years and has been Italy's top bestselling thriller author (not just spy stories) at least for the last decade.
The book by French writer Gerard De Villiers is a reprint of a novel featuring S.A.S. (not related to the British SAS), a series that makes the late De Villiers the world best-selling spy stories author, with over 100 million copies sold (source: The New York Times). A master of eurospy thrillers since 1964, he's written the biggest hits in over 60 years of Segretissimo, still succesfully reprinted in Italy.
The third book is my latest novel under the pen name François Torrent, first in the new series Sickrose, a spin-off of my series Agente Nightshade which I've been succesfully publishing since 2002. There's no bestseller list for books sold in newsstands, but I know they sell well, simply because the publisher would stop asking me for more if they didn't.
Stefano and I receive daily lots of messages and comments from readers on social networks. There's always great expectation for our next books. We're doing proudly the job we love and we were born for: entertain people with low price books but not just "cheap" books.
It might look as if Italians love thrillers, westerns and pulp literature and comics.
The truth is they hate them.
Because they are books

After WWII lots of novels and comics reached the newsstands, getting to a peak in the 1960-70's. Bookshops were an important market as well, but newststands were everywhere and looking at a cover promising suspense and adventure was a daily temptation. Thrillers and science-fiction were mostly from UK and US, though a lot of mystery and spy novels came from France too. But there were many Italian-made comics and some of those created between the late 40's and the 80's have still a huge following today.
TV arrived in Italy in mid-50's - first one single channel, than two, than dozens of private channels in the late 70's - but people didn't stop reading. Gialli and comics were considered unfit for intellectuals, who usually despised popular fiction, with the exception of writers such as Umberto Eco (later author of The Name of the Rose) or Oreste Del Buono. Eco noticed how popular culture made culture closer to everybody, not just a privilege for a higher class.
Italian TV produced both sophisticated adaptations of classic novels from all over the world and original thrillers, such as the ones written by Biagio Proietti and Diana Crispo, who had 28 million viewers tuned on one of their mystery miniseries in the 70's (the same audience you'd find on a major World Cup match with the Italian football team). 
Italian cinema showed how you could have directors like Antonioni, Bertolucci, Fellini or Petri, and at the same time masters of spaghetti westerns or giallo or poliziottesco, not to mention comedy. Besides, the huge money made by producers with popular movies helped them finance the less commercial ones. Some directors, such as Aldo Lado, could easily do both, with style.
But this perfect balance couldn't last forever. In the late 1980's, the competition between state-controlled (and tax-financed) RAI TV networks and private networks owned by Silvio Berlusconi's Mediaset led to a race... toward a lower level in television, entertainment and "culture". The distorted idea of marketing was not "give the people what they want", but "give the people what we decide they want, so they'll get used to have less".
New marketing "experts" were appointed by publishers too. Since many of them didn't read books, they were scared by the unknown and didn't know what to do with them, especially pulp books. Besides, success and money were the new religion, so why wasting time in something so "useless" as reading?
In the 2000's TV started promoting something that might be summarized as "Ignorance is strength", as Big Brother (Orwell's one) would say. Someone tried to sell Orwell's 1984 as "the book that inspired Big Brother on tv". Actually, the "heroes" of the Italian version of the TV show Big Brother were Italian girls and guys who could barely speak Italian and one of them proudly declared he never read a book, showing the audience that this was the key to success.
Sometimes Italian publishers inserted grammar mistakes in books, hoping to make them more palatable to readers who, actually, were no longer buying books, except perhaps some with a TV star on the cover. 
Comics had the same destiny. Almost twenty years ago I was in a secondary school with other writers and one of them asked the students "What are your favourite comics?" The young ones simply didn't read comics. Or anything else, for that matter. And that was before everybody was making selfies on social networks.

There are still book and comics readers, of course. Many of them.
But if you enter now an Italian bookshop and look for what's new, you won't find the kind of stuff you might have found years ago. Only some TV stars left (conventional TV is dying, anyway) and a few mystery novels, but just of the kind currently approved by major Italian publishers.
Our kind of books is left to minor publishers which hardly survive and have a bad but expensive distribution in bookshops. You can find them on Amazon, of course, but Amazon - according to a theory circulating last Christmas among both radical-chic pseudo-intellectuals and right-wing nationalists - is some kind of foreign cabal whose main purpose is killing Italian bookshops and shops in general.
I must be extremely evil myself, since a few books of mine are mostly sold on Amazon.
Luckily, there are still newsstands. Not so many as it used to be, since people no longer buy newspapers daily. Sales are no longer so outstanding: in the 70's a thriller in Il Giallo Mondadori might sell up to half a million copies in just one week, now it's down to thousands in one or two months. But books by Stephen Gunn/Stefano Di Marino or François Torrent/Andrea Carlo Cappi (we write both with our pen names and real names) are still in the bestseller range.
This particular way of selling books and comic books has been saving pulp fiction (and its readers) even in the darkest hours, since newsstands were open during the worst days of pandemic lockdown.
Italy officially hates pulp, but, luckily for us, it hasn't been able to erase it completely.

Andrea Carlo Cappi

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Giallo: the origin of "giallo"

You might have heard the word giallo related to certain 1960-1970's movies. But the word, meaning "yellow" in Italian, has been applied to fiction since 1929.
At the time one of Italy's biggest publishers, Milan-based Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, had different book series, some of them named after the color of their covers. When editor Alberto Tedeschi noticed how succesful the mystery genre was in UK and US, he decided to import some of those detective novels, beginning with S. S. Van Dine and Edgar Wallace.
The covers had a distinctive yellow color and an illustration framed in a red exagon, which was very soon replaced by a more effective red and white circle. Here you see the cover of volume one, Van Dine's The Benson Murder Case, in the original version and in a reprint. The series was called I Libri Gialli (the “yellow books”) and appeared in bookshops in 1929. "Each page a thrill!" said the covers, or "This book won't let you sleep!" Later on, they would glorify the detectives with blurbs such as "Philo Vance has no match" or "Poirot more brilliant than ever".

It was a new kind of literature for Italian readers and the word giallo instantly became symonimous with detective story and mystery novel.
Something similar would happen in France after the war, when publisher Gallimard launched the Série Noire with its all-black covers and its selection of hardboiled authors: when a French film critic called John Houston’s The Maltese Falcon a “noir film” the word noir finally acquired the meaning we know today in fiction.
Though in Italy the crime section in a newspaper is called cronaca nera (“black chronicle”), the world giallo would soon mean “mystery” and “unsolved murder” in real life too.
The kind of mystery fiction labeled giallo in Italy would vary through the decades, but we’ll deal with this in another post. Let’s go back to the origin.
The success of I Libri Gialli led Mondadori to add a new formula: in the 1930’s the novels were also republished at a lower price in newstands, in a magazine called I Gialli Economici, followed by short stories, crosswords and columns. Consider it a more sophisticated version of the American pulp magazines. The covers had still the yellow color and the illustration in the red and white circle.
Mondadori’s Gialli became a popular reading. Il Giallo Mondadori is still sold today in newsstands (and, in a different version in bookshops... not to mention ebooks), after over ninety years.

But the prevaling color in Italy was the black of the camicie nere, the black shirts of fascism which ruled Italy since 1922. Mussolini had started censoring news about crime in Italy: in such a perfect country, he claimed, there was no place for murder. No Italian was supposed to be involved in a crime and the censorship influenced detective novels too.
In the Libri Gialli edition of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, the names of Italian characters were changed and one of them became Brazilian.
When Italian writers started writing gialli, they inevitably clashed with the regime.

To be continued...

What's this blog about?

This blog is about popular fiction from a European-Mediterranean point of view. I witnessed its evolution, mostly in Italy but also in Spain, for about fifty years. It’s an interesting subject which I guess is not well known elsewhere, except basic terms such as giallo and spaghetti western. That’s why I decided to write a few notes about it.
Let me introduce myself. I’m an Italian thriller and sci-fi writer with over fifty published titles, plus a hundred short stories or so. I live in Italy, where I was born in 1964, and in Spain, where I set foot for the first time in 1973. My name is Andrea Carlo Cappi. In Italian “Andrea” is a male name, as well as “Carlo”. I started using my full middle name thirty years ago: I was trying to be acknowledged as a mystery writer, but nobody seemed to be interested in what either “Andrea Cappi” or “Andrea C. Cappi” was writing. The first time I wrote as “Andrea Carlo Cappi”, in 1991, I was immediately hired by the Italian public radio network to work on a mystery fiction series. So I thought: “That’s the right name.”
Later, for various reasons, I had to use pen names. One of them, François Torrent, has gained some fame of its own in Italy since 2002. On social networks I often go by “K”, since Cappi (which means nooses in Italian), is similar to kappa, the letter k. Hence the name Kverse for the universe shared by many of my characters. I’ve also been working on other series of mine, as well as non-fiction, tie-ins and more. A member of IAMTW, winner of Premio Italia 2018 for best Italian fantasy novel, I’ve also been working as editor and translator. I know a few backstage stories and I’m going to share them with you.
Do you know, for instance, how detective novels are called in Italy and Spain?
Do you know that, since thrillers were censored in Italy in the late 1930’s, local mystery writers were almost ostracized for half a century?
Do you know that, long before pulp magazines existed in the US, an Italian writer created pulp-style heroes that shaped generations of readers and writers in Italy and in Spanish speaking countries?
And that some of Italy’s bestselling thrillers are unknown to most readers, but they’re bestsellers anyway?
There are stories behind the stories. Follow this blog and you’ll discover a few of them.

Andrea Carlo Cappi, born in Milan, 1964, has been living between Italy and Spain since 1973. As a writer in Italy he's currently publishing the thriller/spy/noir series Nightshade and Medina, Agente Nightshade and SickroseToni Black and Dark Duet; the erotic urban-fantasy vampire series Danse Macabre; awarded sci-fi/thriller tie-in novels based on the comics series Martin Mystère; caper tie-in novels based on the comics series Diabolik; and more, including the sexy/sci-fi/noir LUV co-authored with Ermione. Editor of book series and anthologies, he's also known as a translator from English and Spanish. He co-wrote the RAI radio series Mata Hari. Find him on his Facebook profile, Facebook official page, on InstagramTwitterLinkedin and YouTube. Also in the blogs (in Italian) Il Rifugio dei Peccatori, Borderfiction Zone, Kverse - Il mondo thriller di Andrea Carlo Cappi and in the website of Premio Torre Crawford.

What's this blog about?

This blog is about popular fiction from a European-Mediterranean point of view. I witnessed its evolution, mostly in Italy but also in Spain...

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