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17 top crime novels set in Italy

With cities steeped in history, picture-perfect islands and sweeping coasts it’s no wonder Italy is an alluring backdrop that has inspired writers across the world in every genre. But beneath the sun-kissed olive groves, grandiose architecture and glistening landscape there’s a dark underworld of menace, Mafiosi and murder that has enticed crime writers for generations.

From the sun-soaked shores of Sicily to the waterways of Venice, via Milan, Tuscany and Florence, if you’re looking for a thrilling Italian experience without leaving the comfort of your own home then look no further.

Here’s our pick of the best crime novels set in Italy, by both Italian crime writers and those closer to home.

Death at la Fenice by Donna Leon

Death at la Fenice by Donna Leon

The celebrated opera house of La Fenice takes centre stage when world-famous conductor, Maestro Helmut Wellauer, is poisoned during a performance of La Traviata. But having left an embarrassment of enemies in his wake as he rose to the top in a city as steeped in corruption as it is in history, local Commissario of Police Guido Brunetti has his work cut out to find the killer. The first of the internationally bestselling Commissario Brunetti mysteries, this is a real gem.

The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri

The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri

Welcome to Vigàta, Sicily, a seaside town riddled with prostitutes, chancers and small-town Mafiosi. So when newly appointed provincial secretary Silvio Luparello is found dead in his car in a particularly shady part of town, Vigàta’s most respected DI, Salvo Montalbano, is brought in to battle the powerful and the corrupt and find out whodunit. A detective like no other in crime fiction, the Montalbano series is a surprising and addictive must-read for all crime fans.

The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Tom Ripley wants money, success and to live the high life, and he’s willing to kill for it. Approached by the wealthy Herbie Greenleaf, Ripley is sent to Italy to persuade his son Dickie to return to America and the family business. But Ripley’s complicated relationship with Dickie turns sour and a brutal murder leaves Ripley having to cover his tracks, dodge the police and convince family and friends of his innocence. Originally published in 1955, Ripley has stood the test of time as an amoral, charming and unusually likeable psychopath.

Cause For Alarm by Eric Ambler

Cause For Alarm by Eric Ambler

This 1938 classic takes fish-out-of-water protagonist Nicholas Marlow from Wolverhampton, England to Milan, Italy to work at the Spartacus Machine Tool Company. On arrival, Marlow quickly learns of his predecessor’s sinister death and finds himself under scrutiny of two agents with very different agendas, as he realises it’s not easy to live a quiet life in fascist Italy with a world war looming. Often praised for inventing the modern suspense novel, Ambler thrusts ordinary men into extraordinary political situations, which makes for a highly entertaining spy original loaded with period detail.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

At an Italian Abbey in 1327, Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate Franciscans accused of heresy, before seven deaths force him to turn detective. Umberto Eco’s debut novel is a perfect mixture of murder, metaphysical philosophy and medieval history, and a masterclass in crime writing. Inundated with international awards and plaudits and selling over 50 million copies worldwide, it is one of the most popular bestselling books ever published.

The Dark Angel by Elly Griffiths

The Dark Angel by Elly Griffiths

A group of bones discovered in a hilltop village near Rome entices Dr Ruth Galloway to escape her life in Norfolk and fly to Italy at the request of an Italian archeologist. In Castello degli Angeli, Ruth finds an extraordinary Roman mystery which sparks a modern murder, forcing her to unearth local secrets that a killer is determined to protect. The tenth book in the ever-popular Ruth Galloway mystery series celebrates the Italian countryside and the drama of a country laced in history.

The Sicilian by Mario Puzo

The Sicilian by Mario Puzo

It’s 1950 and in Sicily Michael Corleone’s exile is ending. On the instructions of his father, The Godfather, he must bring back to America a young man by the name of Salvatore Giuliano, a modern-day Robin Hood. He just has to find him first. The literary sequel to Puzo’s infamous novel The Godfather, this delights in the darkness of the mafia and is packed with intrigue, suspense and evil on an epic scale.

Imperium by Robert Harris

Imperium by Robert Harris

When a victim of Sicily’s corrupt Roman governor, Verres, presents himself at the house of renown senator Marcus Cicero, he sets in motion a chain of events that propels Cicero into one of the most suspense-filled courtroom dramas in history. Narrated by Cicero’s secretary and slave Tiro, this is a re-creation of his vanished masterpiece that charts Cicero’s pursuit of imperium – supreme power in the state – and the first in Robert Harris’s iconic trilogy. A juggernaut of the historical thriller genre.

Inferno by Dan Brown

Inferno by Dan Brown

Infamous Harvard professor Robert Langdon wakes in a Florence hospital with a head injury, no idea how he got there and a macabre object hidden in his belongings. Langdon joins forces with young doctor Sienna Brooks to decipher a sequence of codes in an attempt to foil a deadly global plot, whilst being trailed by a relentless assassin. This fast-paced, action-packed, scavenger hunt of a thriller is the fourth instalment in the Robert Langdon series and certainly lives up to the rest.

A Darker Domain by Val McDermid

A Darker Domain by Val McDermid

In 1980s Fife in Scotland, a young mother and baby are kidnapped and held to ransom, resulting in the death of the mother and the disappearance of the baby. Twenty-five years later in Tuscany, a new clue is discovered alongside gruesome evidence of a recent murder. But are these two cases linked? It’s up to cold case expert DI Karen Pirie to discover the truth. Flashing between 1984 and 2007, this is a pacey, well-plotted read that showcases McDermid in her element.

The Broker by John Grisham

The Broker by John Grisham

Pardoned by an outgoing President, notorious Washington power broker Joel Blackman is smuggled out of America to be set up with a new identity in Bologna, Italy. But when the CIA leak his whereabouts to several countries, some of whom will want him dead, all they have to do is sit and wait for his murder in order to solve one of the biggest mysteries threatening the US government in decades. Always compelling, John Grisham is at the top of his game, and the Italian setting adds an extra dimension with a passion for the country that clearly shines through.

Painting Death by Tim Parks

Painting Death by Tim Parks

Vain and pompous middle-aged Veronese businessman Morris Duckworth is determined to curate the most exciting art exhibition of the decade centering on his favourite subject: violent killings. But when Morris meets resistance from the museum director his whole world begins to unravel, as his children, his mistress and his wife rebel and Morris finds it increasingly hard to ignore the skeletons of his past. A darkly comic third novel featuring Morris Duckworth, Parks draws on three decades of Italian residency to create a well-drawn world and an entertaining read.

The Silver Pigs by Lindsay Davis

The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis

In Rome in AD 70, laid-back informer and imperial agent Marcus Didius Falco rescues a troubled senator’s niece, who is later found dead. Distraught, Falco is tasked by her family to find her killer, which takes him to Britain where he gets involved with a senator’s daughter connected to the traitors he’s determined to uncover. Exposing the criminal underbelly of ancient Rome, this first novel in the Marcus Didius Falco detective series is a witty and endearing mystery from a very original voice.

Just One Evil Act by Elizabeth George

Just One Evil Act by Elizabeth George

A young English girl, Hadiyyah Upman, is kidnapped from a market in Lucca, Italy, sparking a complex investigation in full glare of the world’s media. New Scotland Yard assign DI Thomas Lynley to the case, which is complicated by language barriers, racism and an Italian magistrate who is determined to arrest and convict someone for the crime, no matter who. An Inspector Lynley novel exploring the police and judicial system in a vividly drawn Italy. You won’t be able to put it down.

Summer's Lease by John Mortimer

Summer’s Lease by John Mortimer

Molly Pargeter has booked every family’s summer holiday dream, a picturesque villa in Tuscany, perfect for a three-week getaway. But no sooner do Molly and her family arrive, things take a dark turn. Molly becomes obsessed by the absent owner of the villa, especially when she discovers a murder… Expertly plotted and charmingly readable, fans of P G Wodehouse and P D James will particularly enjoy this.

Cosi Fan Tutti by Michael Dibdin

Cosi Fan Tutti by Michael Dibdin

In this fifth Aurelio Zen mystery, Zen is transferred to Naples in disgrace and tasked with overseeing a criminal clean-up. Beneath the surface of this elegant city, Zen finds corrupt politicians, shady businessmen and local Mafiosi disappearing at an alarming rate, as Naples comes to resemble Mozart’s iconic Cosi Fan Tutti opera. If you want to be immersed in Italy with a bawdy, energetic and suspenseful read, then this is the one for you.

The Viper by Christobel Kent

The Viper by Christobel Kent

Forty years have passed since private detective Sandro Cellini last set foot in La Vipera, the now-derelict farmhouse that was once home to a free-living commune. But when two bodies are discovered nearby, Cellini is encouraged out of retirement to unravel the mystery, which forces him to track down former members of the community and confront his own traumatic memories. Inspired by a year spent in Florence, this is a twisting psychological thriller that culminates the Sandro Cellini series with authenticity and passion.

What are your favourite crime novels set in Italy? Have we missed any of your favourite Italian crime writers? Let us know in the comments below!

Travel closer to home with our recommended reads set in Wales, Ireland and Scotland.

3 Comments

    … Michele Giuttari. A series that has detail and depth set in Firenze. Police procedural but what do you expect from the former head of the flying squad.

    Valerio Varesi, Commissario Soneri series, heavy going in parts but well thought out.

    Marco Vichi, Inspector Bordelli, highly entertaining series reflecting online and how it changed in Tuscany post war.

    Gianrico Carofigoio..but possibly more police procedural than crime?

    Maurizio De Giovanni has two wonderful series both set in Naples – the brilliantly quirky Commissario Ricciardi series set in the 1930’s and the Pizzofalcone series about a group of troubled officers having to take over a police station following an anti corruption clear out of the previous squad which is set in the present day.
    They are very different in tone and character but equally good.

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