The Magazine

Sicilian Gumshoe

An unlikely setting for police procedurals

Aug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By JON L. BREEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Until recently, Italian mystery writers did not loom large in the criminous hierarchy, and the genre was not viewed respectfully by Italian critics. Andrea Camilleri got a late start in the field. Born in Sicily in 1925, he came from a solidly Fascist background and, as a schoolboy, allegedly wrote to Mussolini and received a personal reply. During the Allied occupation, however, he turned to communism—and today is disillusioned with politics. Postwar, he pursued a career on the stage, in radio, and in television writing and production; his first novel was not published until 1978. 

Luca Zingaretti as Inspector Montalbano (2000)

Luca Zingaretti as Inspector Montalbano (2000)

He owes his worldwide fame to the creation of the Sicilian cop Inspector Montalbano, whose first case was published in Italy in 1994. By 1999, the character, like nearly all successful European series detectives (and few American ones), was the subject of a well-made television series. But only when The Shape of Water appeared in translation in 2002 did Camilleri become well-known to the English-speaking world. A mere decade later, he became the first living (and first foreign-language) writer to be the subject of an exhaustive reference book from the distinguished McFarland Companions to Mystery Fiction series, Andrea Camilleri: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction (2012) by Lucia Rinaldi. 

Inspector Montalbano has appeared in 20 novels—17 of them so far available in English—and many untranslated short stories. No mystery series of comparable scope and importance was begun by an author who was close to 70 years of age and who is still adding entries as he approaches 90. 

Inspector Salvo Montalbano works in the Sicilian town of Vigàta, fictitious but inspired by Camilleri’s birthplace, the coastal village of Porto Empedocle. Essentially a loner who is wedded to his job, Montalbano swims for exercise and loves good food, which he eats copiously and preferably without conversation or interruption. His mostly absent girlfriend Livia Burlando lives in a Genoa suburb, hundreds of miles to the north, and only turns up when it is convenient for the story—or inconvenient for Montalbano. Their relationship is affectionate, but rocky: He has an eye for attractive women and is easily bewitched. Throughout the series, he ages a bit more slowly than in real time, from his 40s in his first appearance to 58 in Angelica’s Smile (2013). 

Seemingly fearless but insecure, Montalbano constantly moves between foolhardy self-confidence and gnawing self-doubt. Sometimes he is at full throttle and capable of impressive physical action; other times he is tentative and apprehensive about the encroaching years.

His three main police associates present a distinct contrast: the flamboyant, competitive, and compulsively womanizing Domenico “Mimi” Augello; the meticulous, precise Giuseppe Fazio, sometimes accused of “records-office complex” for his excessive detail in reporting; and switchboard operator/-receptionist Agatino Catarella, who has his job thanks to family connections and is generally useless, though well-intended, and extremely loyal to his chief. 

Catarella presents a special challenge to Camilleri’s translator, Stephen Sartarelli. Usually, a translator should be as inconspicuous as a sports official, noticed only when something goes wrong. The goal should be a book that reads so well in the second language that the monolingual reader will forget it’s a translation. But there is an exception to this rule when the author is Camilleri and the translator is Sartarelli: The novels have so many political, social, literary, and cultural references requiring explanation, and such complex wordplay, that one is conscious of the poet Sartarelli’s presence despite the seamlessness of his prose. (Several pages of notes help sort out the more arcane or confusing allusions.)

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers