Lauretta O'Connor October 31, 2011 - 1:56pm
You may disagree, but I believe that the many sleuths, amateur and professional in English crime fiction are also largely the creations of English, or British, writers. In contrast, it also seems to me that the most famous sleuths in Italian crime writing have been created by non-Italians. Guido Brunetti, the urbane, philosophical inspector at the Venice questura, is the creation of Donna Leon, an American. The edgier, less settled character Aurelio Zen, also a Venetian, was created by the late English author, Michael Dibdin. The utterly captivating carabinieri Marshall Salvatore Guarnaccia, a Sicilian fish out of water posted to duty in Florence, was the creation of the late Magdalen Nabb, also English.A few years ago when I discovered Andrea Camilleri, a Sicilian-born writer of exceptional talent, and his estimable protagonist, Salvatore Montalbano, I was ready for something different: an Italian detective created by an Italian. (Of course it is also true that many Italians, particularly in the north, do not consider Sicilians to be Italian at all but simply amalgams of human deviousness.)Montalbano is a police inspector in the fictional Sicilian town of Vigata where crimes of every description seem to occur, often with colorful or vulgar flourishes. Although corruption is in the very air they breathe, Montalbano and his trustworthy staff serve a police commissioner of unassailable--if weary--integrity. Camilleri is both sly and droll, qualities that enable him to write about the corruption that is central to his stories without giving in to despair. In an author's note to his first book, he writes that the story comes only from his imagination and not from crime news headlines. He goes on: "But since in recent years reality has seemed bent on surpassing the imagination, if not entirely abolishing it, there may be a few unpleasant coincidences of name or situation."
The opening pages of the first Montalbano mystery, The Shape of Water, describe a wasteland at the edge of town: a defunct chemical factory, abandoned apartment blocks, and a garbage dump, all symbols of political depravity. It is a known gathering place for prostitutes. Lupanello, a local bigwig, is found there in his car dead of a heart attack, his trousers down around his ankles. Everyone draws the same snide conclusion, but the truth of Lupanello's death is at once mordantly funny and infinitely more unsavory than what appearances suggest. Camilleri uses humor, often quite earthy, to deflect horror. Darkness is offset by comedy, even buffoonery.Montalbano's character is at the heart of all the mysteries. He is honest, cranky, very intelligent, and stubborn. For many years he has had a loving, sensual, and entirely monogamous relationship with Livia, who lives in Genoa but who visits regularly. Temptation often crosses his path, but he never succumbs. His house at the beach is his refuge; he swims in the morning and late at night. He fears death and cannot bring himself to write a will. He drives at 40 miles an hour and is unable to master modern technology. He weeps when no one can see him. His mother's death when he was a little boy has made him acutely sensitive to the needs of children. He is passionate about justice: he is the victims' sworn advocate.Another of Montalbano's passions, food prepared to perfection, provides Camilleri with an opportunity to indulge in what is certainly a passion of his own. In The Shape of Water, the inspector drives to a trattoria in the town of Mazara for dinner. "The pasta with crab was as graceful as a first-rate ballerina, but the stuffed bass in saffron sauce left him breathless, almost frightened." 'Do you think a miracle like this could ever happen again?' he asked." As it happens, Tannino, the chef, is a former petty thief who had an apparition of the Blessed Virgin, who looked into his eyes, took his hands in hers, and told him to change his ways. So, Montalbano is assured, the miracles will continue. But Enzo's Trattoria in Vigata is Montalbano's favorite and in The Patience of the Spider, Enzo prepares couscous with eight different kinds of fish, and only for certain customers. Montalbano is so overcome by the perfection of the dish that he must avert his head as his eyes fill with tears. Camilleri is having fun.Camilleri, once an active Communist, also uses the series to criticize Italian politics in his own way. Throughout the series, he nips at Berlusconi's death-grip on Italian media by contrasting the decency of Montalbano's ally, Nicola Zito, of the independent Free Channel, with the reptilian Pippo Raggonese of the state-controlled Televigata. In The Patience of the Spider, Montalbano visits the office of a crooked lawyer. He notes resignedly and without comment a photograph on the wall of Silvio Burlesconi wearing a track suit. In The Paper Moon, a prominent member of "the ruling party" is described as a "young man much admired in those circles where admiration goes hand in hand with staying alive."I've read eight of the thirteen or so Montalbano mysteries that have been translated into English, in which Camilleri covers a wide range of subjects: murder and political corruption (The Shape of Water); human trafficking and illegal immigration (The Snack Thief and Rounding the Mark); kidnapping and revenge (The Patience of the Spider); buried secrets (The Terra Cotta Dog); betrayal and murder (The Paper Moon); financial malfeasance (The Smell of the Night), and tax evasion, mafia style (August Heat). It is not as grim as it sounds. The stories have tremendous brio, and the characters and dialog are, simply, wonderful. I am charmed by a book where a punctilious civil servant is nicknamed The Scourge of God. Camilleri infuses all the stories with sly and often salty humor, and with a gorgeous sense of place: the hot sun, the blue-green sea, olive groves, scents of mint and wild fennel, the octopus cooked with oil and lemon. The people of Vigata persevere in often difficult lives with a peculiarly Sicilian mix of faith, fatalism, and earthy humor. Salvatore Montalbano, their sworn protector, is a highly moral man whose language can be distressingly profane and vulgar. He is, nonetheless, excellent company.