The past several years have seen something of a resurgence of European crime fiction in the United States. It's no secret that the genre is massive overseas, in Scandinavia and especially France, where roughly one in five books sold is a crime novel. The success of books like Alex, the first thrillerby popular French author Pierre Lemaitre to be translated into English, further demonstrates that Americans are catching the bug. Similarly, publishers have been introducing English speaking audiences to some of the foremost Italian mystery writers working today. From Roberto Saviano to Michele Giuttari, the former detective turned crime novelist, there's a lot to feast on. And now these masters of crime, noir and high-octane tales of the European underworld are slowly taking center stage.
Judges, a collection of three novellas by three of Italy's best and brightest — including Andrea Camilleri, Carlo Lucarelli and Giancarlo De Cataldo — is one of the most satisfying works of crime fiction out this year. Themes of deep desire, justice and political intrigue run side by side with sharp, irresistible prose.
Judges begins with "Judge Surra" by Andrea Camilleri, known for his Inspector Salvo Montalbano novels. Camilleri weaves an intoxicating tale that was shortlisted for a 2014 Crime Writers' Association Short Story Dagger award. It takes place in 19th century Montelusa and involves the odd but lovable Surra, who's somewhere between astute genius and hapless idiot. One thing we know for sure, though, is that he is not without his vices; particularly an "overwhelming fondness for sweet things" — which, over time, has caused his wife to worry for his health.
While investigating what appears to be a conspiracy in Turin, Surra discovers that important files in four separate trials are mysteriously missing. He begins receiving death threats and "gifts" hand-delivered with the purpose of scaring him off the case. However, his calm in the face of these bloody warnings only inspires praise from his colleagues: What a hero, they say, "what inhuman courage." As the story unfolds, the reader is drawn further into Surra's hilarious — albeit deathly serious — search for justice (and the best cannoli).
"The Bambina," the second and perhaps darkest of the collection, follows the bodyguard Ferro and the young Judge Valentina Lorenzini (the title's Bambina) he's been hired to protect. "Judges working on political investigations need bodyguards," she says when they first meet — and it proves true later that evening when someone fires on their car, shattering the windscreen and leaving the judge wounded and in need of intensive care. From then on, the story shifts from troubling to completely absorbing as everyone tries to discover whether the attack on her life was an act of terrorism or a crime of passion involving her boyfriend. But as innocent people start turning up dead, the Bambina must decide just how far she's willing to go in pursuit of the cold, hard truth.
Last, we have "The Triple Dream of the Prosecutor" by Giancarlo De Cataldo. It's a quick-moving and masterful display of storytelling that introduces Ottavio Mandati, a prosecutor in the court of Novere. Centered on Mandati's lifelong rivalry with the corrupt mayor, Pierfiliberto Berazzi-Perdico, "Triple Dream" is about the never ending quest for fairness and the sobering reality that sometimes the good guys fall short. More than the first two stories in the collection, which are exemplary in their own right, "Triple Dream" taps into our obsession with defeating our enemies at all cost.
While each story in "Judges" explores some of the larger effects of crime and extreme corruption in a society, each also begs to be enjoyed on its own terms. The authors don't seek to make sweeping philosophical claims as much as they desire that their stories be taken for what they are: Enthralling episodes of good versus evil in the context of policemen, law breakers and magistrates, each individual novella packed with enough edge-of-your-seat suspense and bloodshed to fill a full book.
Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR Books. He's on Twitter: @itsjuanlove