British crime writer Tom Benjamin’s Bologna-based crime novels have fast become some of my preferred reading on planes, trains and the occasional beach, making the gialli ideal for the summer.
From his first published book A Quiet Death in Italy to latest release Italian Rules, English detective Daniel Leicester and his Italian colleagues, family and acolytes delve deep into the Emilia-Romagna capital, revealing its underbelly and largely undiscovered beauty. Having moved to Bologna from London about 16 years ago (“my wife’s Italian”), Tom wanted to portray his newly adopted city in fiction form. “I had a burning desire to describe Bologna when I came here and the Bologna I discovered was one that few bolognesi also were aware of. I wanted to integrate, which meant learning the language fast, so I did a three-month Italian course starting from zero. But when I went out on the street, I couldn’t understand anything anyone was saying. In the end, I got a job working at a canteen for the poor. That was where I saw a completely different side to Bologna. As a former journalist, I felt compelled to describe it.”
Tom Benjamin takes his inspiration from travel writer Norman Lewis, whose 1978 book, Naples ’44, was a diary of his time as a British intelligence officer during the Second World War. “It really chimed with my experience of being in Bologna, which wasn’t that of the traditional expat. Reading Norman Lewis also gave me the means because up until that point I had not thought of having a British detective moving through modern Bologna… In a sense, it gave me a huge amount of licence. Authors often create Italian police officers, which come with an implied level of cultural knowledge. The purpose of creating Daniel Leicester was to ape the experience of Norman Lewis and to describe Bologna through the eyes of an outsider.”
All the Daniel Leicester crime novels explore little-known locations in Bologna, including the canals, theatres and, in the case of Italian Rules, the city’s world-class cinema archive. Benjamin guides readers on a fast-paced, enjoyable tour of his La Rossa. In addition to healthy doses of British humour, long-term expatriates can identify with the detective’s chirpy resignation of being mostly integrated, while never quite fully being “in” Italian culture.
A former journalist and spokesman for Scotland Yard, Benjamin’s crime scenes benefit from a studied amalgam of observation and pathos. From his father-in-law’s (the Comandante) gentleman clubs and lunchtime trattoria spots to former drug addict-turned-sidekick Dolores, the characters come gloriously to life, making readers yearn for the next installment. (Thankfully, books 5 and 6 are in the works.) “When you envisage the characters, they are often two-dimensional, but they become their own person when you put them on the page. It’s a mystical experience. To me, they are very much alive.”