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Talking Location With author Tom Benjamin – BOLOGNA

17th May 2020

#TalkingLocationWith … Tom Benjamin, author of A Quiet Death in Italy, set in BOLOGNA.

Bologna è una regola – ‘Bologna is a rule’ sings Italian rock star Luca Carboni who, like many of the city’s inhabitants, was actually raised elsewhere – in his case a small town in the hills half an hour’s drive away. But his song, like other Italian hits featuring Bologna, perfectly sums up the mystique of the city to Italians – as I write in my ‘Glossary Bolognese’ at the end of A Quiet Death In Italy ‘while for foreigners, Rome, Venice or Siena might symbolise the romance of Italy, Bologna occupies a special place in the hearts of many Italians and is, arguably, their most loved city.’

I knew none of this when I came to live in Bologna over a dozen years ago – I not only had to look for it on a map, but also do some rudimentary research. This was before Ryan Air had opened a route to city, the Comune – council –begun promoting tourism, and TV celebrity chefs ranged beyond their usual Italian suspects. Yes, I had a vague idea of it being a business centre associated with ‘spaghetti Bolognese’ (actually tagliatelle al ragu – that’s in the glossary too) but was otherwise ignorant about the city of a million I was to discover boasted one of the largest intact medieval centres in the world, over 40 kilometres of UNESCO-nominated porticoes, Europe’s oldest university, and the very much living history of radicalism, intrigue and criminality that would come to inspire me.

But back to those porticoes that both adorn and conceal Bologna – arteries that shelter you from the city’s abundant sun, and rain, and draw you into its shadows. It is no coincidence Bologna is regarded as the home of the Italian Giallo – mystery novel – and hosts many of the nation’s top crime writers. Eagle-eyed readers will note I pay homage to some of the genre’s greats when my English detective, Daniel Leicester, and his boss, the Comandante, arrive at one apartment building – ‘I read the names on the letterboxes: Varesi-Feltrinelli, Sciascia-Lucarelli, Boschi, Fois-Machiavelli.’

So I knew there was a story here somewhere, but where to look? As so often in Italy, the stories came to find me. Alongside studying Italian, I got a job as a bouncer on the door of a homeless canteen, and it was here I began to see another side of the city, the dirt beneath its fingernails. Meanwhile a group of anarchists, complete with black and red banners, had occupied a building in my street, and passing by I would try to strike up conversation with them. Bit by bit, my story began to gel, and it was one unfolding before my eyes – the gentrification of the city in the face of radicals trying to cling, quite literally, on to the ‘centri sociali’ they had occupied for years … riot police moving in, squatters fighting back, thousands marching through the centre; the vanilla whiff of tear gas in the air, police batons swishing through the smoke…. I imagined an anarchist being found floating dead along one of the city’s hidden canals and A Quiet Death was born.

I’m a reporter by trade, and have a background in crime – I used to be a spokesman for Scotland Yard. By definition a writer writes, so I felt compelled to describe my new surroundings as a way of making sense of them. I was drawn to crime fiction not only because it was what I knew, but it tests the fabric of society to provide us with a glimpse of what lays beneath. Daniel Leicester has helped me begin to unravel the mystery of Bologna, along with Italian culture, as I hope he will help you too.

Tom Benjamin

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