Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Italian noir (by non-Italians)

Donna Leon's novels (in this case A Noble Radiance) have plots that are as dark and cynical as anything being published today, dealing openly with the byzantine politics of Venice and Italy, as well as corruption and inadequacy in the police. But the surface narratives of the novels deal so much with family, aristocracy, and personal connections that the dark side of the novels is balanced by a "good" narrative that compensates for the often unjust endings of the novels. I do not think the balance is a good thing--to me it's sugar to make the darker elements more palatable, and the sweetness can make the central characters, particularly Commissario Guido Brunetti and his wife and loyal assistant, a bit cloying. And there is a "cute" aspect to some of the running "gags," like the computer expertise of the secretary sitting outside Brunetti's boss's office. Elettra, the secretary, has connections with someone at every conceivable database and information source, and seems to be the only person in the Venetian police who knows how to use a computer or a modem. Brunetti's reliance on her is a weak plot device, especially in a police procedural (which is essentially what this series is)--we don't really want cuteness drawing attention away from the muck (of bureaucracy, favoritism, and privilege), do we? Magdalen Nabb's Marshall Guarnaccia, in her series based in Florence, is equally involved with his family--but he doesn't rely on his wife for connections to various aristocratic families (a running theme in the Brunetti novels), and Guarnaccia is out in the street talking to people, not working his father-in-law's or his boss's secretary's connections, as with Brunetti. Nabb's shambling hero is an outsider, a Sicilian in Florence (which is typical of the police, or in this case the Carabinieri, in Italy--many southerners end up in northern posts). His outsider/insider role (since he's been in Florence, stationed at the Palazzo Pitti, for a long time) works well in Nabb's investigations of Florentine society--and the reader learns more about the real Florence, behind the facades and away from the tourist areas, than Leon's, in spite of the latter's themes of the loss of a once vibrant Venice's real life (submerged now under the near-total reliance of Venice on tourism).

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