The Intellectual as a Detective

From Leonardo Sciascia to Roberto Saviano

by Angelo Castagnino (Author)
©2015 Monographs 194 Pages


The Intellectual as a Detective: From Leonardo Sciascia to Roberto Saviano offers a fresh perspective on both Italian crime fiction and the role of the intellectual in Italian society. By analyzing the characterization of men of culture as investigators, this book addresses their social commitment in a period that goes from the Sixties to today. The connection it establishes between fiction and real life makes this book an interesting addition to the debate on crime literature and its social function in Italy. The detectives created by Sciascia, Eco, Pasolini, Saviano and other novelists foster a reflection on how the narrative aspect of characterization has been used in connection with a historical perspective. Thanks to its broad scope, not limited to a single author, this book can be studied in undergraduate and graduate classes on the Italian detective novel, and it can be a helpful resource for scholars interested in characterization and the transforming figure of the intellectual in Italian society.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction: The Intellectual as a Detective
  • 1. The Isolation of the Intellectual in the Works of Leonardo Sciascia
  • 2. The Professor Investigates: Pontiggia, Piazzese, Seminerio
  • 3. The Intellectual Between Obscurantism and Renovation: Umberto Eco’s Il nome della rosa
  • 4. Injustice, Memory and Death in the Novels of Antonio Tabucchi
  • 5. Investigating the Condition of Women: Dacia Maraini’s Voci
  • 6. Intellectuals in Noir
  • 7. From Pasolini to Saviano: Reality, Fiction and Literature of Inquiry
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix: Biographical Information on the Authors Discussed
  • Bibliography
  • Series index

← 6 | 7 → Introduction:

The Intellectual as a Detective

This work discusses the character of the intellectual as a detective in the Italian novel from the Sixties to today, a period in which several novelists have used crime fiction in order to reflect on the social function of intellectuals, their relationship with the institutions and their recurring condition of isolation. It is possible to argue that the narrative aspect of characterization has been employed in connection with a historical perspective on culture and its role in Italian society, particularly considering how the solution of a criminal case in fiction symbolically refers to the quest for truth that real-life intellectuals undertake. Following a trend that is common to contemporary scholarship, subgenres that fall into the more general category of crime fiction, such as giallo, noir or detective novel, will be discussed together, although the distinctions that this terminology implies will not be underestimated. Such approach is necessary because the attention will be focused on the presence of a detective whose investigation is strongly based upon an intellectual approach, regardless of the specific subgenre in which this presence is verified.

The topic here analyzed is part of the discussion on the relationship between intellectuals and institutions in the Italian Novecento. Particularly after the posthumous publication of Antonio Gramsci’s Quaderni del carcere (Valentino Gerratana’s edition appeared in 1975), the social implications of the intellectual activity have been considered a compelling aspect of the construction of shared memory. Gramsci pointed out the necessity for Italy to develop a form of popular culture that would contribute to the formation of a national identity, and the Quaderni also offered a brief, but meaningful, reflection on the possibility for the detective novel to be part of this process. In reference to the attempt of men of culture to actively affect society, the position that Gramsci expressed is summarized with particular effectiveness in a 2010 article by Frank Rosengarten, “On Intellectuals, Engaged and Otherwise.” As he discusses the role that Gramsci proposed for intellectuals, no longer corresponding to a category separated from the rest of society, Rosengarten observes:

Not only does he reject the notion that intellectuals are to be seen as a group apart from the common run of humanity in terms of how they conduct themselves in society and perform the tasks to which they are customarily dedicated; he also poses the question of intellectuals as a problem of determining the limits and the context in which they operate. He takes the position that the proper context in which to look at the question of intellectuals is the world of work, particularly as it involves the ← 7 | 8 → performance of tasks that, far from being in any way removed from the practical needs of society, make these needs the object of their activity. (158)

In the years directly following the Second World War, the establishment of a position of centrality for the intellectual seemed possible: especially after the fifth Congress of the Pci (1946), the independence granted to the thinkers of the Italian Left provided the opportunity for a fruitful exchange of ideas based on a plurality of opinions. As Alberto Asor Rosa remarked in his Letteratura italiana (1982), precisely in “Lo Stato democratico e i partiti politici,” during the dopoguerra Italian writers legitimately hoped to be protagonists of the public discussion on the state of the nation:

Nell’impegno della letteratura a favore della politica si scorge anche un modo per dare un ruolo sociale più significativo alla letteratura, un maggior potere allo scrittore. [...] Il ruolo protagonista degli intellettuali, degli scrittori, degli artisti, dei cineasti, ne viene rapidamente e fortemente potenziato. La pluralità delle posizioni, che scaturiscono dal dibattito, ha anch’essa motivazioni sostanzialmente autonome, interne ai processi di sviluppo e formazione dei gruppi intellettuali: anche se gli attraversamenti con la politica sono, come è ovvio, frequenti e vivacissimi. (572-73)

In the effort of literature in favor of politics it is also possible to see a way to give a more meaningful social role to literature, a stronger power to the writer. [...] The role of intellectuals, writers, artists, filmmakers as protagonists is rapidly and evidently strengthened. The plurality of positions, which originates from the debate, too has substantially autonomous motivations, internal to the processes of growth and formation of intellectual groups: although overlaps with politics are, as it is obvious, frequent and very intense.

From the historical point of view, the characters at the center of the Italian detective novel are the fictional representation of the end of the illusion that culture could actively affect national history: for this reason, many of them are either defeated or experience the impossibility to deliver justice, even when the investigation is successfully concluded. In this way, the intellectual as a detective metaphorically represents the condition of men of culture in their pursuit of truth, and the difficulties that the characters face can be interpreted as a counterpart of the problems that real-life intellectuals deal with in their attempt to influence society. Fictional detectives live an everlasting contradiction: despite their initial optimism about the possibility that criminal cases can be solved through the use of an intellectual approach, they are defeated at the end of almost all the novels studied here.

The inclusion of crime fiction into a position of centrality in the Italian literary discussion is a recent phenomenon, specifically connected with a series of factors: editorial success has been followed by the interest of the critics who, after decades of negative attitude, now acknowledge detective novels as dignified objects of analysis, particularly because they often address matters of ← 8 | 9 → social relevance. The commercial success of such novels as Giancarlo De Cataldo’s Romanzo criminale (2002) and Andrea Camilleri’s series of Commissario Montalbano have contributed to the creation of a trend, as confirmed by high sales for the entire subgenre. Innovative views and ideas, such as those presented in Wu Ming’s New Italian Epic (2009), have fostered a renewed wave of respect from the critics who recognize the social impact that this movement is capable of.1 It should be noticed that crime fiction has been present in Italy for more than a century, in some instances producing extremely acclaimed novels that have found their space in the national canon. The tradition of the Italian detective novel includes such authors as Carlo Emilio Gadda, Leonardo Sciascia and Umberto Eco, and has recently been inherited and transformed into a strictly contemporary form by Roberto Saviano, whose Gomorra (2006) has astonished readers in Italy and abroad.

In addition to the relevance given to the themes presented in detective novels, very often concerned with social denunciation, crime fiction provides interesting reasons for an approach focused on the construction of the characters. More specifically, crime fiction from the dopoguerra to today has demonstrated a strong tendency to introduce characters of detectives constructed through intellectual features. The realm of the Italian novel has been inhabited by several detectives introduced as intellectuals: policemen and private eyes with a remarkable ability to base their investigations on humanistic knowledge are not rare in the Italian giallo and the other subgenres related to the fictional representation of crime and detection. The coincidence between characters ← 9 | 10 → combining cultural and investigative qualities also recurs in the opposite direction: it is often the turn for professors, journalists or erudite Franciscan friars to act as detectives, inevitably influencing their inquiries with elements connected to their original status of educated people.2 This tendency to diversify the characterization of the main protagonist derives from the very nature of the detective novel that, should it propose a repetitive pattern, would produce the continuous rearrangement of similar plots. In this sense, the proliferation of so many different tendencies in crime fiction today can be interpreted as the way to escape the limits that are internal to the subgenre. Aldo Sorani already warned about this limitation in 1930, when he expressed his concerns in an article published on Pegaso and entitled “Conan Doyle e la fortuna del romanzo poliziesco”:

Troverà nuove formule? Si riaccentrerà sempre meglio intorno all’eroe tipo e al nucleo-problema, o si ridistribuirà per i più diversi labirinti narrativi a seconda dell’inventività e della stravaganza degli autori? Io credo che le possibilità del genere siano, in fondo, assai limitate. (220)


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (March)
crime fiction society social commitment
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 194 pp.

Biographical notes

Angelo Castagnino (Author)

Angelo Castagnino is Assistant Professor of Italian at University of Denver. His interests focus on the narrative construction of the intellectual as a character, the detective novel and the social commitment of Italian intellectuals.


Title: The Intellectual as a Detective
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198 pages