Bernie Gunther is probably the most famous fictional police detective who struggles to hang on to his principles while working within a fascist state. But Philip Kerr’s creation isn’t the only investigator at work in wartime Europe. These four TV movies are based around the Inspector De Luca detective books by Carlo Lucarelli. They’re set in Italy’s Adriatic coast during the chaotic, corrupt and conflicted decade from 1938, skipping WW2, to 1948.
In the opening episodes, Mussolini is in power. High society and lowlife criminals scrabble for advancement within Il Duce’s fascist regime, and De Luca must himself enforce the state’s repressive regulations while trying to solve murders, deliver some justice… and keep himself (a) alive, and (b) out of the dreaded camps.
Each feature-length episode runs to almost two hours and is a self-contained story. They’re filmed in Italian with English subtitles and are a visual treat, packed with period details, cars, costumes and sets. The first film, ‘Unauthorised Investigation’ quietly contrasts the penniless detective, living in squalor, cycling between crime scene and police station with his suspects of the sordid but sparkling in-crowd who live in mansions, buy all the loyalty they need, and take tea with Mussolini.
In the second episode, set in 1945, De Luca has risen in the ranks thanks to accidentally saving Il Duce’s life, but still has to come up with the ‘correct’ conclusion to an investigation of the rich and powerful as the fascist scrabble for survival. By 1946 he’s trying to live down his links with the dictatorship but is discovered by a partisan acting as a policeman, and so becomes an unwilling player in a localised version of the wider post-war political struggle. Finally, in ‘Via Della Oche’, De Luca is dragged into a political investigation in Bologna’s red light district. Throughout, De Luca is continually put under pressure to come up with a politically expedient solution to a sensitive situation, and each time he stubbornly resolves to conclude the investigation to his own satisfaction, even if it’s not always possible to bring justice to the victims.
The political situation in Italy plays a substantial role throughout this series but it never overwhelms the investigation which is core to each episode. These are police procedurals set in troubled times, which makes them doubly fascinating. But they’re not ‘political thrillers’, as such. The tagline – he’s not fascist, he’s not partisan, he’s just a cop – perfectly sums it up.
De Luca is an interesting character – there are some similarities with Montalbano in his disregard for authority and his use of unorthodox methods, but De Luca comes across as a much harder individual. These were brutal times and De Luca employs brutal methods when it suits him; he’s not beyond a spot of state-sponsored bullying if it gets him a result. He’s also (even) more susceptible than Montalbano to the wiles of an attractive woman.
The filming is quite different to the Montalbano investigations, too; far more claustrophobic and enclosed. In part that probably reflects the tricky business of finding outdoor locations in modern Italy which can pass for war era, but De Luca is the type of detective you find in a dimly lit alley, not devouring the seafood special next to a blissful beach. There’s a lot less humour – well, almost none – in the De Luca stories. Nor is there an extended supporting cast of familiar characters. This altogether more stripped back to basics, like the society it represents; crumbling and fractured and distinctly paranoid. Trust is thin on the ground and De Luca’s own loyalties and motivations aren’t always clear… which makes it interesting to watch each plot gradually untangle. The pace isn’t forced, either, which might make these a bit slowly-paced if you’re more used to the normal American one-hour crime shows.
Most TV detectives are likeable people. De Luca is… more complicated than that. That character quirk, plus the wartime setting, make this series all the more interesting.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Available as a two-disc DVD from Amazon