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.
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.)
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.
Are these three unrelated cases or will they be connected somehow? Not surprisingly, the treasure hunt proves more sinister and less playful than it first appears, and the ghastly Grand Guignol solution is well prepared for, with a murderer who may be guessable but can also be figured out by some fairly laid clues.
So far, only one of Camilleri’s non-Montalbano novels has been translated into English. First published in Italy in 1992, Hunting Season, a historical novel set in 1880s Sicily, antedates the first Montalbano by a couple of years. It is set in the same town, Vigàta, where the son of a medicinal gardener murdered many years before returns to open a pharmacy, setting the tongues of a varied and colorful group of locals wagging. A series of mysterious deaths follow. The only thing harder than writing a pure comic murder novel must be translating one, but Sartarelli is up to the job. This very short book is funny, bawdy, sexually explicit, and as carefully and elaborately plotted as a Montalbano case.
A few Inspector Montalbano cases that stand out (apart from those I’ve already mentioned) include The Paper Moon (2008), The Wings of the Sphinx (2009), and The Potter’s Field (2011). The long-running television series, with Luca Zingaretti as Montalbano, is available on DVD and recommended to subtitle readers, though it can’t duplicate the effect of the novels. Impressive for its acting, production values, and faithfulness to the original stories, it’s more like a typical police series, downplaying the comedy and unable to capture Montalbano’s interior life, which gives the novels much of their uniqueness.
Whatever the medium, this series proves that the best contemporary mystery writer and the most engaging fictional cop from the continent of Europe may not come from Scandinavia.
Jon L. Breen is the author, most recently, of Probable Claus.