Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Precious Right to Read a Murder Mystery

I thought this bit was worth passing on to people!

the last mystery story to be published in Italy--at least so long as the Mussolini regime functions

In 1939 the American detective novelist Todd Downing wrote an Oklahoma friend an interesting letter in which he mentioned that his acclaimed 1934 detective novel The Cat Screams "is to be the last mystery story published in Italy--at least so long as the Mussolini regime functions."  According to Downing, the Milan publishing firm of Mondadori had bought the translation rights to The Cat Screams "just before Mussolini issued his decree, and they rushed it into print just under the wire."

Hitler may have loved Edgar Wallace,
but apparently Mussolini  was not a mystery fan

Downing's friend was highly incensed:

[I]t would seem mystery stories belong to the literature of "escape"....So, no more sleuthing, vicariously, for the Italians.  They will be restricted to a literary diet of hero-worship with the fascist big shots in the leading roles, deification of the ancient and modern Italian great, speeches by Mussolini, and novels on the various regions of Italy and her colonies, with the emphasis on the greatness and goodness of everything Italian and the meanness of everything foreign.

For his part Downing confessed that it struck him "that taking a people's detective stories away from them is just about the farthest north of something."

I agree with Todd, as he so quaintly and colloquially put it!  So, when you read your next Golden Age detective novel, you'd better appreciate it, even if it's a mediocre one! Just imagine having your reading limited to Mussolini hagiographies!

Todd Downing:
"Taking a people's detective stories
away from them is just about
the farthest north of something."
I know I get some Italian visitors to this blog and I would love to hear more from them (or anyone else of course) on this subject.  I also read (in Guido Bonsaver's Censorship and Literature in Fascist Italy) that Mondadori declined publishing Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None the same year it published The Cat Screams, 1939--not because the former book was a mystery, but because it contained two impossible-to-delete suicides (and the Regime considered the depiction of suicide demoralizing).

filmed in the United States during World War Two,
but unpublishable in Italy

So was The Cat Screams really the last mystery published in Italy, at least until after World War Two?  I would love to see a copy!


  1. If only that were the worst offence of the Fascio in Italy. Where did you unearth that correspondence from? Fascinating stuff Curt, as always. No idea about this aspect of the history of Mondadori - sounds like a job for Pietro De Palma!


  2. This post reminded me of the following lines that I often find in paperbacks from the WWII period:

    " a free democracy everyone may read what he likes. Books educate, inform, inspire; they also provide entertainment, bolster morale..."

    This subject also came up once before on the JDC forum and an Italian member, named Moran, made following comment:

    "That was an atrocity indeed. The attitude of the regime towards detective fiction was that it could be an incentive to crime, by presenting it in a romantic fashion. True crime was almost banned by the fascist-controlled newspapers and radio. There was no crime in Italy, beacuse the benevolent Mussolini government had eradicated it: that was the message to convey. Originally foreign authors were tolerated (Christie, Stout, Van Dine and others were regularly translated in Italian in the late '20s and '30s) but at the end of the decade strict rules were issued (the criminal had to be a foreigner, even if the novel took place in Italy; no police officer or other authority had to be the guilty party, etc.)"

    You are correct that we should even appreciate the mediocre ones, but after three, more or less, duds I begin to long for something above average.

  3. Sergio,

    see my forthcoming book on Downing--coming soon!


    thanks for that bit from JDC forum, how interesting. I especially love the bit--given our discussion of Blore, on Patrick's blog--about the prohibition on murderous authority figures, including cops!

  4. The fact that fascism was looking in a very targeted to mass communication: the primary means of communication, even before radio and film, were the books, and initially distributed mainly among the middle classes and into urban centers, but the explosion of crime literature involved the masses soon: fascism did not look kindly on this type of literature, considered immoral for content (the making of a criminal act) but also in origin (the origin was mainly the Anglo-Saxon world, whose style of life was seen as a corrupter of "healthy young fascist"). That's why more or less in the mid thirties of the twentieth century, fascism imposed limitations as well as directives of the political culture: accepted or tolerated the mystery, they demanded that publishers would introduce at least a share of 20% of its catalog , the mystery created by Italian authors. They were also given directives to which it could not be waived: the crimes are required that also took place in exotic environments if not cosmopolitan, and that offenders were not represented "Italic" but foreigners and that criminal offenses should occur in vicious circles when not depraved, that there had to be suicides, and that the happy ending was required to demonstrate that the resolution of the crime should be identified in a return to order of things.

    Pietro De Palma

    If someone knows italian language, he could read my article about Augusto De Angelis (italian mystery writer ) and his novels during Fascist Era, at link :

  5. Last mystery published in Italy at least until after World War Two, by Mondadori, was "La casa inabitabile" by Ezio d'Errico ( another great italian mystery writer during fascist era), novel published with number 266 of "I Libri Gialli" by Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, in 1941 October.
    Taking such a banal fact of crime (two students of good walks of life who committed a robbery in a house and beat up a maid, once arrested, they said they were excited by the reading of mysteries), Mussolini decided to suspend mystery publications.

    Pietro De Palma

  6. Pietro,

    this is very interesting. Do you know what were the last English or American mysteries published by Mondadori until after World war Two? I wonder if The Cat Scream was really the last? I wonder if there is a catalog accessible?

    Your article perhaps will be translated someday, sounds fascinating!

  7. Among English or American mysteries published by Mondadori until after World war Two, the last novel published in Italy by Mondadori in "I Libri Gialli" series, wasn't "La pensione di Mme Fournier" (=The Cat Screams), published with number 186 in 1938, but "L'Avventura di Patrizia" (= The Great Mistake, 1940) by Mary Roberts Rinehart. It was published in 1941 with number 265.
    Among the first and the second, a lot of English and American mysteries were translated and published. Among these: The Siamese Twin Mystery by Ellery Queen, The Feather Cloak Murders by D. & H. Teilhet, Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie, Murder at 28:10 by Newton Gayle and a lot of other novels.

    Pietro De Palma

    Another my article about italian mysteries during Fascist Era, is that dedicated to Ezio d'Errico :

  8. Curtis, if you want, Sergio and John have my email address. Ask for it. If you want and you get in touch with me, I should send to your email address the list of series before World War Two "I LIbri Gialli" by Mondadori publisher.

  9. Thanks Pietro,

    I would like to see that. I wondered whether Todd might be wrong in thinking his was the last. Not quite, then!

  10. You really do need to let me use some of these on forgotten books.

  11. Patti,

    Thanks, I'd be pleased to, any you would like. I can send you an email. Some of them, like the Everton, are definitely forgotten (sadly)!