With the Cosa Nostra (the original Mafia) in Sicily, the Camorra in Naples and the Campania region, the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria among others, Italy is a fertile source for crime fiction – especially police procedurals. Among the genre’s established American and British policemen, the odd Frenchman or two and the sudden influx of Scandinavians now, their Italian counterparts – Inspectors Aurelio Zen and Allesandro Cenni, Commissarios Guido Brunetti, Pierro Trotti, Alec Blume – have also held their own. But there is one problem – none of them is an indigenous creation.
All are by British/American authors – the lanky, lugubrious Zen owes his existence to Michael Dibdin, Cenni to American expatriate Grace Brophy, the conscientious and capable Brunnetti of Venice to longtime American resident Donna Leon (whose work been translated into various languages except Italian – at her request), Trotti in northern Italy to Timothy Williams and Blume, of American background, in Rome to Conor Fitzgerald.
But Italian authors have not been remiss!
Policeman-turned-novelist Michele Giuttari’s nearly-autobiographical creation – Chief Superintendent Michele Ferrara of Florence – figures in half a dozen adventures, Maurizio de Giovanni’s tormented Commissario Ricciardi in 1930s Naples in at least five novels, Marco Vichi’s Inspector Bordelli in Florence of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ also has five appearances so far, Valerio Varesi’s Commissario Soneri in three till now and Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano in sunny but yet dark Sicily in 18 novels (in English that is – at least five more novels and several collections of short stories exist untranslated).
Not only by volume but in approach too, the works of Camilleri (1925-) are most engaging, combining engrossing mysteries verging on the macabre and noir with pointed social and political commentary (Silvio Berlusconi and his brand of politics is a frequent target), as well as subtle observations on loneliness and aging but still managing to maintain a light, even comic, touch.
Then, they can boast of some singularly unforgettable characters right from the quirky Montalbano himself. The good inspector, whose name is a homage to Spanish mystery writer Manuel Vazquez Montalban, is a “loose cannon” for most of his bosses but efficient in his odd combination of lethargic cynicism and active commitment, and has equally idiosyncratic colleagues – the amorous Mimi Augello, Fazio of the “record office complex”, the police station receptionist Catarella, who can’t remember names or numbers without mangling them but is a computer whiz, and the irascible pathologist Pasquano and more.
Then there are the bosses – pompous new Commissioner Bonetti-Alderighi and sex-crazed prosecutor Tommasino, long-time, long-distance girlfriend Livia (they squabble every night over phone), his confidante Ingrid whom he saves from being framed, his journalist friend Nicolo Zito, enemy journalist Pippo Ragonese and a host of other endearingly, eccentric characters.
The Montalbano series was already a hit in Italy well before it appeared in English, courtesy translator Stephen Sarterelli, who has brought out perfectly Camilleri’s mix of Italian, Sicilianised Italian and Sicilian dialect.
Starting with “The Shape of Water” (2003), the canon includes “The Terracotta Dog” (2004) (one of the best where Montalbano is more keen to solve an old mystery than his current case), “The Snack Thief” (2004), “The Voice of the Violin” (2005), “Excursion to Tindari” (2006), “The Scent of the Night” (2007), “Rounding the Mark” (2007), “The Patience of the Spider” (2008), “The Paper Moon” (2008),”August Heat” (2009), “The Wings of the Sphinx” (2009), “The Track of Sand” (2011), “The Potter’s Field” (2012), “The Age of Doubt” (2012), “The Dance of the Seagull” (2013), “Treasure Hunt” (2013), “Angelica’s Smile” (2014), and “Game of Mirrors” (2015) – “Blade of Light” should come out late next month.
They deal with some gruesome, unconscionable crimes – murky politics, Mafia depredations, unexplained murders, financial scams, organ harvesting, human trafficking, and the like, but the deft hand of the inspector is always present to achieve, in his decidedly unorthodox way, justice – of sorts.
And then the gastronomy – the entire series is permeated with lyrical descriptions of the choicest Sicilian cuisine, well suited for someone who “stopped in front of the restaurant where he’d gone the last time he was in Mazara. He gobbled up a saute of clams in bread crumbs, a heaped dish of spaghetti with white clam sauce, a roast turbot with oregano and caramelized lemon, and he topped it all with a bitter chocolate timbale in orange sauce. When it was all over, he stood up, went into the kitchen and shook the chef’s hand without saying a word, deeply moved”.
So, if you like your tastebuds to be tickled along with your brain cells, Montalbano is your man!
(26.07.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)