Andrea Camilleri

I don’t get to read too much that originates from outside the English-speaking world, so there’s no way that I can confirm or deny an assessment that rates Andrea Camilleri as one of the greatest Italian writers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

I can, however, unequivocally state that by the time I was halfway through my first Inspector Montalbano story I was a confirmed fan. 

Faced with a situation where your favourite meditation spot had been destroyed to make way for some bastard’s villa what would any sane person do other than paint Arsehole in large green letters all over the offending structure? 

Camilleri came to writing late after a career as a drama teacher, theatre director and television producer, publishing his first novel, The Way Things Go, in 1978, followed by A Thread of Smoke in 1980. Neither enjoyed much success. In 1992, The Hunting Season turned out to be a best-seller. 

Then in 1994 Camilleri came The Shape of Water, the first Inspector Salvo Montalbano novel, set in the fictional town of Vigata. Originally written in Italian with a sprinkling of Sicilian phrases and expressions and translated into English by American poet Stephen Sartarelli, the Montalbano series pays homage to Spanish writer Manuel Vazquez Montalban, and the TV version of Montalbano's adventures increased Camilleri's popularity to the point where his home town, on which Vigata is modelled, changed its name to Porto Empedocle Vigata in 2003.  

Originally, Camilleri only intended to write a couple of Montalbano books, but after The Terracotta Dog (1996), proved to be a major success Camilleri ended up putting his detective through increasingly complicated plots involving illegal immigrants, drug-running, prostitution, fraud, organ-peddling and money-laundering. 

Much of the charm of the stories lies in the cast of supporting characters and in the convolutions of Italian society. Anyone who has read Donna Leon or Michael Dibdin will know, more or less, what to expect as far as Italian society is concerned, but it’s the supporting characters and the decidedly unorthodox Montalbano which place Camilleri’s books in a league of their own.

Take, for example, desk sergeant, Catarella, who takes incoming phone calls, mishears almost everything he is told and delivers messages in his own brand of fractured language. Yet, as the series progresses, he turns into a wizard on the computer, uncovering past words and other arcane secrets Montalbano will never be able to grasp.

Then there’s Montalbano’s long-term girlfriend Livia, based in Genoa but able to adjust her schedule and jump onto a plane to Palermo adding her own complications to the issues at hand. 

For added spice, there’s Ingrid Sjostrom, married to a wealthy Sicilian, and every Italian man's dream, with an almost-total lack of sexual scruples and the kind of driving skill that belongs on a Grand Prix circuit.

Livia’s comings and goings are disruptive in more ways than one. While Montalbano’s housekeeper Adelina, mother of two delinquent sons, can be relied on to leave exquisitely prepared meals in her employer's refrigerator she makes herself scarce whenever Livia appears on the scene.

The final Montalbano mystery has apparently already been written, but hopefully there’ll be a few more Montalbano novels before it hits the market place. A glance at that bibliography suggests Camilleri’s good for one or two Montalbanos a year and it seems he’s fairly prolific away from the series as well, so while the books are getting thinner and the biggest delay seems to involve Stephen Sartarelli’s translation it looks like we’ve got a few more as the Montalbano series approaches the twenty title mark.


© Ian Hughes 2012