Italy, Via Murder Mystery

Forget the guidebooks. Whodunits offer a private eye on Italian art, food and culture

Rufus Sewell as Aurelio Zen in the BBC series "Zen"
Rufus Sewell as Aurelio Zen in the BBC series "Zen" Franco Ballomo / © BBC/Leftbank Pictures / Courtesy: Everett Collection

Reading murder mysteries used to be one of my guiltiest pleasures, pure entertainment for the couch potato. But then I discovered a multitude of crime novels set in Italy and realized they could be useful to the traveler. While on the trail of bad guys, mystery writers recount history and politics in an amusing way, set the mood of a place and sometimes even offer specific tips for tourists willing to track them down.

Take Rat King, Cosi Fan Tutti and nine other mysteries by the late Michael Dibdin, set all over Italy, featuring the suave, sharp, but emotionally adolescent investigator Aurelio Zen, recently played by Rufus Sewell in a BBC Masterpiece Theater. One of the books takes Zen out to lunch at a little pork restaurant near his office on Rome’s Viminale Hill. As it turns out, Er Buchetto (which means pork in an old Roman dialect) is still there, a cubbyhole dispensing slices of succulent roast pork from a carcass by the front door, served on wax paper, by weight. Accompanied by crusty rolls and excellent jug wine, it’s as cheap and tasty a meal as you’re likely to find around the historic center.

The mysteries of Donna Leon, an American academic who lives in Venice, feature Commissioner Guido Brunetti, a plain, old-fashioned good guy who helps his kids with their homework and goes home for lunch when the crime scene in La Serenissima allows. Every time I go to Venice I end up in some lonely cul-de-sac by a canal that I recognize from a Leon mystery. She’s on her 21st, Beastly Things, now.

Western Sicily is the territory of Italian writer Andrea Camilleri, so richly-rendered in 16 books (and an Italian TV series based on them) that tourism has spiked in Port Empedocle, the model for the mysteries’ fictitious town of Vigata near the island’s southwest coast. Camilleri’s gumshoe Salvo Montalbano has a taste for blondes and Sicilian food; ordering the local specialties he eats in the books won’t leave any gourmand disappointed.

Finally, there’s a mystery set in Tuscany by the late Sir John Mortimer who gave us the inimitable Rumpole of the Bailey. Summer’s Lease, published in 1988, is about an English woman who drags her family to a rented villa in the Chianti region of Tuscany (so popular with people from the U.K. that it’s nicknamed Chiantishire) where she noses into the absent owner’s secrets.

The book, made into a BBC Masterpiece Theater feature in 1991 starring Sir John Gielgud, is a little piece of fluff. But the story begins with a terrific piece of travel advice in the form of an itinerary:

The work of Piero della Francesca can be followed from the frescoes in Arezzo to the pregnant Madonna in the small chapel at Monterchi. Enthusiasts can take the trail to Sansepolcro and on, across the Mountains of the Moon, to see the sublime Flagellation in the Ducal Palace at Urbino, undoubtedly the greatest small picture in the world.

Based on nothing more than that, I followed the trail last spring and ended up grateful to Mortimer for leading me to its enchantments, especially Piero’s riveting Resurrection in the artist’s home town of Sansepolcro.

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