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Sicilian Gumshoe

An unlikely setting for police procedurals

Aug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By JON L. BREEN
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And then there’s the thorny problem of Catarella. How do you represent verbal differences in education, intelligence, or social status when writing about characters who speak a different language? You could just use the same pointers you’d use in English—James Melville had lower-class Japanese speaking like cockneys, and some of Lindsey Davis’s ancient Romans spout Yorkshire slang—but that wouldn’t work for a character who mangles the language as distinctively as Catarella, who always gets names wrong while relaying messages in his own fractured version of Italian. Sartarelli’s method of dealing with Catarella-speak is similar to the case of Officer Crabtree, the British soldier who goes undercover as a French policeman in the British sitcom ’Allo ’Allo!, a comic view of the French Resistance. All the characters in the show who would be speaking French in real life speak in English for television purposes; and Crabtree, though he believes his French to be flawless—and it somehow seems to fool the Germans—has no command of vowel sounds, saying things like, “I was pissing by the door when I heard two shats. You are holding in your hind a smoking goon. You are clearly the guilty potty!”

Catarella’s Italian, as rendered in English, has similar comic effect. Montalbano’s athletic performance in a dangerous situation is “so nimmel,” like “a agrobat on a trappist.” Here he is announcing a visitor: “Issat Isspecter Seminario, yer college o’ yers in Montelusa, whotofore’s lookin’ f’yiz ’n’ moresomuch ’nsistin’ ’e wants yiz—” (Treasure Hunt, 2013). Having Catarella say “buggery” for burglary, or “nickpicks” for picnics, is a good translator’s trick, using English language wordplay to parallel whatever Camilleri had come up with in Italian. 

The Montalbano novels are rich in comedy, sometimes approaching slapstick, though the stories are ultimately quite serious. The Age of Doubt (2012) opens with Montalbano, who has the most active dream life of any sleuth apart from Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, dreaming of his own death in a way that is both funny and illustrative of his insecurities. Like the late British crime writer Robert Barnard, Camilleri can maintain a light and humorous touch throughout, making the very grave and disturbing endings all the more powerful. In Treasure Hunt, two life-sized inflatable dolls lead to farcical misunderstandings with Montalbano’s housekeeper’s well-meaning son; but by the horrific climax, they are not a topic for laughter. 

Montalbano hates paperwork, and when his office floods in The Age of Doubt, he orders that any documents awaiting signature that are not quite ruined be given an extra dose of water to render them unreadable. In the same novel, a call from the commissioner at an inopportune time prompts him to fake an injury. Then he has to continue the deception.


As Angelica’s Smile opens, longtime girlfriend Livia has turned up unexpectedly and is soon accusing him of unfaithfulness. Regular readers know she is right to be suspicious, though this time he’s innocent. Then, in her sleep, Livia provides a cryptic and suggestive comment—“No, Carlo, not from behind”—for Montalbano to obsess about. The main case involves a series of burglaries of homes of the wealthy, all with a distinctive modus operandi: keys stolen from the target’s second home; gas used to immobilize the inhabitants; an important tool in the burglary deliberately left behind. Montalbano receives an anonymous letter claiming responsibility for the burglaries, saying they are done for fun rather than profit and that they will stop after two more. Other letters follow. 

The title refers to the easily besotted cop’s temporary love interest, bank employee and sexually prolific Angelica Cosulich, victim of the burglary that follows the first taunting letter. The novel has the usual intricate plotting and strong ending, though it is not as downbeat as some. Having a mysterious criminal taunt the lead cop with anonymous messages has become a standard police procedural ploy, but no one has used it quite like Camilleri. It also figures in Treasure Hunt, an even stronger effort and maybe the best in the series. 

A macabre opening puts Montalbano in the apartment of an elderly, religiously obsessed, mentally unbalanced brother and sister who have been firing on passersby in the street below. There he encounters a room full of crucifixes, that life-sized inflatable doll, and a rat who dances across piano keys. After escaping the dangerous situation as a hero, Montalbano is challenged by an anonymous letter-writer to take up the puzzle-laden search of the title, a challenge he does not view too seriously at first. A third plot strand is a missing young woman. 

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