The lack of resolution in Inspector Montalbano’s casebooks owes its origins to a novel published in Rome in 1927. During Mussolini’s fascist regime, Carlo Emilio Gadda wrote That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, a crime story to explore the country’s fascist era. He uses the tropes of crime fiction – the burglary, the murder, the ensuing investigation – as a way of examining society, and what has caused the fascist state in Italian society.
The book begins with the murder of an old woman in an upmarket Roman apartment. The body of the poor signora was lying in an infamous position. A deep, terrible red cut opened her throat fiercely… It had taken half the neck, from the front toward the right, that is towards her left, the right to those who were looking down. But Gadda shows how pointless it is to investigate a single crime when society around it is itself so corrupt. The crime was the effect of a whole list of motives which had blown in on a whirlwind. The story revealed how subtly fascism had penetrated the lives of ordinary Italians. In a patriarchal society, one of the main female characters represented what Italian women faced in the Mussolini years. Liliana couldn’t have children, so she has ambiguous relationships with the young women of the apartment block who are ‘adopted’ by her, and these relationships form the swirl and colour of the crime.
Gadda was an established literary figure aiming his criticism at the fascist regime. He used colourful slang and local dialect to satirise Italy’s dictator. He pointed out Mussolini’s penchant for fancy uniforms, his posturing; there is a fair amount of name-calling that goes on. He mocked Mussolini in a way that Italian readers could recognise at once.
In his book, he is as wildly inventive and playful as James Joyce in The Dubliners. He uses terseness and academic text, digressions and word-play; he twists the convention of detective fiction to tell his larger story; his characters are types; his investigations are of a certain kind; his story is ultimately unresolved. The complexity of reality, he seems to say, are banally simplified by fascism.
[From BBC Four’s Italian Noir – The Story of Italian Crime Fiction]