The best books for discovering Italian mystery novels

The Books I Picked & Why

The Shape of Water

By Andrea Camilleri, Stephen Sartarelli

Book cover of The Shape of Water

Why this book?

Until his death in 2019, the Sicilian-born Camilleri was the king of the Italian mystery novel scene. His detective, Inspector Montalbano, became a beloved fixture in Italy thanks to a TV series based on his adventures. I love Montalbano because a) he’s a decent man trapped in an often-corrupt Sicilian environment, and b) boy, does he love great Italian food! The series is 28 books long; it’s worth starting with the first one to see if you love this world.

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Death at La Fenice

By Donna Leon

Book cover of Death at La Fenice

Why this book?

The fascinating thing about the top-selling Italian mysteries is that they’re often written by non-Italians. I’m guessing it takes an outsider to notice and deftly highlight the subtleties of another culture. But Italy has also been a destination for so many ex-pats who are in love with the food and culture. Author Donna Leon is an American who has lived and worked in Italy for many years. Her detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti, is a learned man who seems well-adjusted, despite seeing the worst in humanity. This Venetian-based series is currently 30 books strong, so you have plenty to read before you ever step into a gondola.

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Death of an Englishman

By Magdalen Nabb

Book cover of Death of an Englishman

Why this book?

The late Magdelen Nabb nailed Florentine life and manners better than some journalists working in the city and region—and she was a potter! Her detective, Marshal Guarnaccia, is a fairly simple man who gets the job done, but knows when he’s out of his league. Nabb, who was English but chatted up local cops in the Italian village where she lived, felt that real Italian cops were marked with a streak of fatalism. They knew that they would never be able to buck the nation’s soul-crushing bureaucracy—so why try? Despite the darkness, I love her descriptions of everyday Italian life, and her dialogue is often hilarious. Fourteen books in the series, and they’re relatively short, lightning-quick reads.

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A Season for the Dead

By David Hewson

Book cover of A Season for the Dead

Why this book?

If you diligently work your way down this list, you’ll travel to Sicily, Venice, Florence, and Naples. But none of these cities beat Rome. I’m biased, of course. My wife and I lived in Rome when we were first married. When I close my eyes, I swear I see Caravaggios and I can still smell the woodsmoke and simmering pasta sauce that perfume Rome’s air. All of which brings me to Hewson’s Nic Costa novels. I don’t think anyone nails Rome’s sinister criminal quality the way Hewson does, but he still manages to capture the Eternal City’s beauty, food, and art. (Hewson’s a Brit who travels to Italy often; it's totally worth checking out his Instagram account.) Currently 10 books in the series. If you like them, investigate his standalone novels, some of which are also set in Italy.

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I Will Have Vengeance

By Maurizio de Giovanni, Anne Milano Appel

Book cover of I Will Have Vengeance

Why this book?

Can a mystery novel have supernatural elements and still be considered a mystery? I obsessed on this question when I was writing my book. (You’ll know why if you check it out.) Then, out of the blue, I stumbled across de Giovanni’s astonishing novels. His detective, Commissario Ricciardi, suffers from a bizarre affliction. He sees dead people. Specifically, he sees visions of murder victims just before their death. Naturally, this makes him the greatest cop ever, and the most tortured. If you can stand to read a little on the wild side, you will enjoy these historical mysteries, set in 1930s Naples. Currently 10 books in the series.

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