Monday, December 30, 2013

Great Books V

Still Life, Anonymous, 16th Century, Florence

We'll be leaving for Paris on January 6 and going on to Pisa in March. In anticipation, I'm reading some great French and Italian detective mysteries. Although it might not seem obvious, a good detective story can be better than the best guide book in providing a window on the culture, history, geography and cuisine of a country. 

Auguste Dupin was the first English-language detective in Edgar Allen Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue published in 1841. Monsieur Lecoq appeared in France in 1868, and the great detective Sherlock Holmes made his debut in London in 1887. The 1920s and 1930s were considered the highpoint of the genre with the arrival of such famous detectives as Sir Peter Whimsey, Inspector Maigret, Miss Marple and Philip Marlowe. Detective novels continue to be popular into this century. In 2012, mystery novels ranked second in U.S. market share with sales of $728.2 million (Romance novels were first with $1.438 billion in estimated revenue.) 

In France, a detective or police novel is known as a roman policier or a polar, a slang word derived from policier; in Italy, the books are called libri gialli. Giallo or yellow is the background color used on a series of detective mysteries first published by the Italian publishing house Mondadori in 1929. The books, mostly translations of American and English pulp fiction, had such success that other publishers began producing their own versions, with similar yellow covers. The genre expanded to include thriller and suspense books and films, which are all known in Italy today as gialli.

All of Travel Oyster's Great Books V are books in a series so if you like them, you can be assured of plenty of good reading.

The Châtelet Apprentice
published in French as L'Énigme des Blancs-Manteaux
First novel in the Nicolas LeFloch Series
Jean-François Parot
Translated into English by Michael Glencross

If you love history, want to walk the streets of a meticulously-recreated 18th-century Paris, and consult food menus of the period, then this is the series for you. Our hero, Nicolas LeFloch, raised in Brittany in a religious order, arrives in Paris with a recommendation from his godfather the Marquis of Ranreuill. With such an illustrious backer, the young police officer is quickly involved in intrigue and in the murder of some important people - with implications for King Louis XV himself. As the series develops (there are currently 11 books) LeFloch's personal life and love life become as complicated as the crimes he solves. Along the way, Parot has his fictional characters rub elbows with authentic historical figures, including LeFloch's boss, Antoine de Sartine, who was the lieutenant general of police at the Châtelet in Paris from 1759-1774. Although numerous physical changes have occurred in Paris in the intervening 250 years, it's amazing how many of the streets, buildings and markets that LeFloch frequents still exist in modern-day Paris. To enter the world of Lefloch's Paris, click here to go to the author's creative web page. The text is in French only, but the maps, works of art and photos are accessible in any language. 

Murder in the Marais
First novel in the Aimée Leduc Investigations
Cara Black

Modern-day private investigator Aimée Leduc wears high heels, Chanel suits and and zooms up to the scene of the crime on her trademark motorcycle. Underneath her classic exterior, however, Leduc is pure punk. The suits are from second-hand shops in Paris; the heels are often thrown in her bag as she chases criminals through some of the city's seediest streets; and the motorcycle is frequently in the repair shop. Like all interesting fictional characters, Leduc's personal life is complicated. She is the daughter of an American mother, who disappeared when Aimée was eight years old, and a French father, who was also an investigator. When her father is killed during a stakeout, Aimée abandons her studies at the Sorbonne to take over his business. Her specialty is computer forensics and corporate security - a business that doesn't sound as if it should lead to murder, but it does, again and again, in every neighborhood of Paris. Her work takes her to many famous areas of Paris, but also to other neighborhoods unknown to most visitors. Although the author Cara Black lives in California, she knows the ins and outs of Paris better than most Parisians, and her descriptions of the city are accurate and intriguing. For a list of all the books in the Aimée Leduc Investigations, click here. 

Death at La Fenice
The first in the Commissario Guido Brunetti Series
Donna Leon

In this first novel of the wonderful Commissario Brunetti mysteries, a world-renowned musical conductor is found dead during the intermission of La Traviata at Venice's famed theater, La Fenice. Turns out someone put cyanide in his coffee. Commissario Brunetti's investigation leads him not only behind the scenes of the world of opera, but also into the conductor's murky past. There is no shortage of suspects, but the suave, urbane Brunetti is a master of detection. 

The author, American Donna Leon, has lived in Venice for almost 30 years and has written 22 Brunetti mysteries since this first one was published in 1992. The beautiful city of canals shares top billing with Brunetti, his family and friends, and the crooks and murderers who inhabit not only the back allies of Venice, but also its fabled palazzos. Venice may be known as La Serenissima, but life in Leon's Venice is anything but serene. (The title La Serenissima actually refers to the Venetian Republic's historical sovereignty.) 

The Commissario Brunetti mysteries are translated into 24 languages, but the glaring exception is Italian.  It's been speculated in the Italian press that Leon is afraid to have her books published in Italian because she fears Italians may be offended by what she says about their country. In an interview, however, Leon said: "the people in my neighborhood know that I am the American who lives opposite Nando and above Angelo Costantini and it would just change the tenor of my life...But I'm not afraid, if people don't like the books, read another book." I think that for most people, once you read one Brunetti novel, you'll want to read them all. (Fans of Brunetti are in luck: the 23rd book in the series, By Its Cover, will be available in April 2014.)  

The Shape of Water
published in Italian as La forma dell'acqua
First book in the Inspector Montalbano series
Andrea Camilleri
Translated into English by Stephen Sartarelli

Author Andrea Camilleri was little known outside of his native Italy until in 1994, at age 70, he wrote La forma dell' acqua (The Shape of Water). The book introduces us to Inspector  Salvo Montalbano and the world of crime, violence, sex and intrigue in the fictional Sicilian town of Vigàta.

Montalbano is an engaging character, somewhat contentious, but honest and decent - although he knows, as Camilleri says: "that sometimes refusing to obey an order is a virtue, not a sin."  An avid reader of detective novels and a lover of good food, Montalbano is adept at navigating the seamy underworld of the Mafia and its web of crime. 

Food often plays a part in Italian novels, but Montalbano really loves food. A culinary discussion can pop up anywhere in a Montalbano book, even at the scene of a crime.  At a restaurant, Montalbano may deliver a tirade on Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, but when the food arrives, silence reigns. Not even a beautiful woman sitting across from him can distract him from the pleasures of his food - at least not until the meal is finished. (Click here for Camilleri's web page containing recipes from the books.)

Sicily, with all its beauty and its corruption, comes to life in the Montalbano series, but the entire country is represented in the astute commentary on the social history of Italy for the last 20 years. In an interview in the Guardian newspaper, the author said: I deliberately decided to smuggle into a detective novel a critical commentary on my times. This also allowed me to show the progression and evolution in the character of Montalbano." 

There are now 22 books in the series (16 of them have been translated into English) and Camilleri is known the world over. At 88 years old, the author doesn't know how many more Montalbano books he has in him, but it's certain that there will be at least one more. Camilleri has already written that last Montalbano mystery and deposited it with his publisher. When he gets tired of Montalbano or can't write any more, the book will be published. "I finished him off," says Camilleri. I, for one, am hoping Andrea Camilleri and Salvo Montalbano live a long, long time.

Happy New Year and Happy Reading,


  1. Hooray.....I love the blog. I pesonally have read the last three (contemporary) authors and love them. Now, am challenged with the others. thank you. Sue LaCabe

  2. Geraldine, thanks for these tips- I've read all of the Cara Black novels, and met her once when she spoke at an Adrian Leeds get-together. But I am intrigued by "The Chatelet Apprentice" and look forward to reading it.
    I wonder if you know the mysteries written by Fred (for Frederique) Vargas? Most are translated into English Her detective hero is Adamsberg. Her works are very well written, and take place all over France (and sometimes outside the country as well). Other friends and I enjoy them immensely, and I highly recommend them. Mary

  3. Great idea, Geri! I'm reading a lot about Venice now so will definitely get the Venice stories. Hope all is well. Happy New Year!
    (We are in Sun Valley until April.) Deb

  4. I don't know M. Porot's books but will seek him out based on your recommendation. I have read all the other authors you listed. I'm hooked on the Montalbano mysteries. Now I can't wait to go to Sicily!

  5. Happy new year! I read Death at La Fenice a while ago. Enjoyed it immensely! Dan

  6. Great post. I always learn new things (emphasis on the plural) when I read Oyster. Thanks for introducing me to these writers. Once I retire, currently scheduled for 2014, I’ll have time to explore their works and their world. G


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