The brooding Inspector Montelbano

Ragusa, Sicily, a prime film location for Inspector Montelbano series

Ragusa, Sicily, a prime film location for Inspector Montelbano series

Inspector Montelbano is one of those television series that starts off in the quieter hours of BBC programming, often on a fringe channel because the schedulers are not really convinced it will be popular with viewers. Initially it had a bit of a cult following but gradually it gained traction as word got spread around by what Malcolm Gladwell calls “the mavens”  The viewing numbers kept rising until it became pretty clear that the adventures of a brooding Scilian detective could be “the next big thing”.

All of this completely escaped my notice since I’m not a big TV viewer and hardly ever look at the upcoming schedules. By the time I got to see an entire episode, the BBC was already showing series three of the original Italian production and the number of visitors to film locations and places mentioned in the books had shot up. Just as the Inspector Morse series gave a tourist boost for Oxford ( though it hardly needed it with all those cupolas and spires) and Brother Cadfael did the same for the town of Shrewsbury on the Wales/England border, the character of Montelbano based on the novels of Andrea Camilleri has created another book induced tourism trail.

As much as I’ve enjoyed tv series like Morse and Cadfael I found the books upon which they were based to be very insubstantial and unsatisfying fare so I wasn’t planning to read any of the Montelbano books. But then I but heard an episode about Camilleri in a BBC radio programme on European masters of crime fiction in which he was described as a writer who weaves social and political commentary into his novels. it sounded as if his Montelbano creation would be  more than a straightforward crime novel, so I decided to take a closer look. An article by the Guardian in which Camilleri  said that social commentary was always his aim and that he “deliberately decided to smuggle into a detective novel  a critical commentary on my times,”  was all it took for me to rapidly download a few of the series onto the e-reader. I decided to read two of the more recent titles by which time the character of the police offer would have been firmly developed. 

I’ve now read two of the Inspector (or to give him his official titlle, Commissario) Montelbano titles that have been translated into English.

Age of DoubtDance of Seagull
Number 14 in the series is The Age of  Doubt which opens with the Inspector in a dark mood one morning after a dream in which he sees his own death and funeral. The day turns steadily worse with a storm and then the discovery of a disfigured body in the water near   Vigàta. Something is decidedly fishy about the occupants of a nearby luxury yacht. Soon Montelbano is on the trail of diamond smugglers though he can’t give the problem his full attention because there is a rather dishy harbour authority lieutenant that has caught his eye.

Number 15 is Dance of the Seagull which also opens with an omen though of what Montelbano isn’t sure. As the Inspector sits in his porch watching the dawn lift, he sees a seagull fall from the sky, then perform a strange dance before lying down to die. It is not the best start to his intended holiday with girlfriend Livia. The holiday however has to be postponed when news arrives that his close colleague Fazio has failed to return home. It transpires the policeman had been involved in a secret investigation into smuggling and murder. This being Sicily there is the inevitable Mafia connection with which Montelbano has to contend in the desperate search to find his friend and potentially save his life.

Both novels move at a fast pace and involve a multiplicity of set pieces  which would be a dream for any location scouts and directors.  The political and social commentary aspect comes through in Montelbano’s frustrations with the bureaucracy that gets in the way of his investigations and with the way nothing seems to happen on time or as planned.

Was there anything whatsoever in Italy that left or arrived at the scheduled time? The trains ran late, the planes did too, the ferries required the hand of God to sail, the post we won’t even mention, the buses actually got lost in  traffic, public works projects were usually off by five to ten years, any law whatsoever took years before it was passed, trials in the courts were backed up and even television programmes always started a good half hour after the scheduled time….

This is a sentiment that will be familiar to anyone who has holidayed in Italy (it’s even more evident in Sicily where I recall my guidebook comment that local citizens consider laws to be merely ” suggestions”).

Our Commissario isn’t impressed with any aspect of Sicilian life but politicians and the media generate some of his strongest feelings.

No matter what they do, our elected representatives don’t give a **** about public opinion!. They take drugs, go to whores, rob, steal, cheat, sell themselves, commit perjury, make deals with the Mafia, and what happens to them? The newspapers talk about it for, oh three days maybe? Then everybody forgets about it .

Such is his dismay about every aspect of life not just in Sicily but in Italy generally, that he thinks the country;’s constitution should be rewritten. He comes up with his own version so instead of Article 1 declaring that

Italy is a Democratic Republic, founded on work.

Sovereignty belongs to the people, which exercises it in the forms and within the limits of the Constitution.

Montelbano believes it would be more accurate to declare that:

Italy is a republic founded on selling drugs, systematic lateness, and useless chatter.

This portrait of a man who is completely disenchanted with bureaucracy and with public services is one that will strike a chord with many readers even outside of Italy and was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book. Equally enjoyable although in a more vicarious way sadly was the way Camillieri tantalises us with descriptions of the meals enjoyed by the Inspector. Salvo Montalbano is passionate about food – he loves to eat and in copious quantities – so if he is not looking in the fridge of his apartment to see what his housekeeper has prepared for him, he’s dropping into his favourite local trattoria to wolf down pasta, calamari, mussels, sole, shrimp. Just reading this book you feel your own waistline beginning to stretch.

The one aspect of these books that didn’t quite work for me was the character of Catarella, the desk sergeant whom Montalbano frequently finds unintelligible because he manages to mangle even the most basic of instructions and messages. I see how this is meant to be funny but the humour relies on showing in English the huge gulf between what Catarella should be saying and what he actually says. How would that work in the original Italian which is the language in which Caterella would clearly be conversing.

For all that however, and the fact the plots are a bit formulaic, I enjoyed the characterisation of the moody, pedantic, bad tempered detective with his wry take on life.

If you’re interested in discovering more about Andrea Camilleri, the Guardian and the Wall Street Journal have interesting background articles about his life and work.

The Infatuations by Javier Marias

InfatuationsThe Infatuations is a dark murder mystery that also poses moral and philosophical questions about the extremes to which we humans will go in pursuit of love. Coming from the pen of Javiar Marias,  considered one of Spain’s greatest contemporary writers, all the elements seemed in place for a deeply engaging read.  And for people who have a fondness for verbosity, philosophical meandering and convoluted sentence constructions, it probably does equate to an enjoyable experience.  I am not one of them and so this has gone onto the Did Not Finish pile.

I enjoyed the first few chapters as we get to know Maria Dolz, the narrator. She cuts a lonely figure as she recounts her daily routine of breakfast in a cafe near her Barcelona apartment. She observes the other customers. One couple in particular catch her eye; well-dressed, confident and so happy in each other’s company, that Maria labels them The ­Perfect Couple’. Perfect until that is, the husband Miguel Deverne is stabbed to death. Soon after Maria becomes more closely involved in the life of his widow Luisa and intimately acquainted with Luisa’s friend Javier. The more she is drawn into their world, the more she begins to feel that something doesn’t quite add up.

I never got to discover anything more about the murder and whether Luisa or Javier were implicated since it was at this point that my patience ran out with The Infatuations.  For 180 pages (just a few pages shy of the book’s half way mark) we’d had barely any plot development but oceans of digressive narrative and dialogue which traced the same argument over and over again, the essence of which was whether a widow should feel so welded to her former love that she cannot then find happiness with another partner. Javier Marias kept returning to this question like a dog returning to its favourite bone.

It all became overwhelmingly tedious to the point I began skimming – never a good sign for me with a book.  With a different style of writing I could have continued but Marias seems to specialise in tremendously long sentences consisting of multiple clauses hitched together so by the time you’ve reached the end of the sentence, the meaning of the first part has long since disappeared. There is little to break up this piling up of words so you keep going back to find the start of the point or just something — anything — to hang onto.  Javiar Marias’ novel seems appropriately titled since the guy seems infatuated with his ability to create words regardless of whether they add to our understanding or enjoyment

Here’s an example from page 105 of my copy:

I didn’t see Luisa Alady again for quite some time, and in the long between-time I began going out with a man I vaguely liked, and fell stupidly and secretly in love with another, with her adoring Diaz-Varela, whom I met shortly afterwards in the most unlikely of places, very close to where Deverne had died, in the reddish building that houses the Natural History Museum, which is right next to or, rather, part of the same complex as the technical college, with its gleaming glass-and-zinc cupola, about twenty-seven metres high and about twenty in diameter, erected around 1881, when these buildings were neither college nor museum, but the brand-new National Palace for the Arts and Industry, which was the site of an important exhibition that year; the area used to be known as the Altos del Hippodromo, the Hippodrome Heights, because of its various promontories and its proximity to a few horses whose ghostly exploits have become doubly or definitively so, since there can be no one alive who saw or remembered them.

One hundred and eighty one words in one sentence with details that add nothing to our understanding of the characters or the plot. Despite reading this four times I still wasn’t absolutely sure from the syntax whether the technical college had the cupola or if it was the museum.

This and several later similar examples tested my patience too far. Farewell The Infatuations. I doubt I will want to attempt anything by this author again.


Sunday Salon: Book Clubbing

sundaysalonAfter enjoying deep blue Spanish skies and temperatures in the high twenties for the last two weeks, I expected to start shivering the minute we landed back in the UK on Wednesday. I also expected to find the trees at our house were well on their way to the autumn show of colours. But what’s this – warmth and sunshine? And the grass is still growing and most leaves are still on the branches. It means I can delay getting the sweaters out of the cupboard for a few weeks yet I hope.

What I can’t delay is getting prepared for the book club meeting in a few weeks where I am leading the discussion on Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’m not sure how the club members are going to react to this book because I saw a few wrinkled brows when I said it was by an author from Nigeria. So I want to make sure I go equipped with good discussion points.

Which brings me to a question about your experience with book clubs and what the expectations are for the person whose choice of book you are reading. This is my first book club ever (not for want of trying but that’s a very long story) and I didn’t know what to expect. For the first two months it seemed the person who had nominated the book took the lead in discussion and had come prepared with talking points. One woman, who used to work in publishing, had clearly spent a lot of time thinking and researching her chosen title. I used that as my model when it came to my first choice (Margaret Attwood’s Possession) and found interviews in which Attwood talked about the book from which I read extracts.

But since then we’ve also had a few months where the club member hasn’t done any preparation. They didn’t even seem prepared to introduce the book, explaining why they chose it for example. When gently pushed, all they could say was “i thought it would be fun to read”.

It was left to the rest of the club members to throw a comment or discussion point into the ring otherwise we would have had an incredibly short meeting.

What happens with your groups – do people come with questions prepared in advance? is there an expectation that if it’s your selection, that you will kick off the discussion? Do you do any research outside of reading the book?  Do you have any tips to share on how I can make sure we don’t have long silences or people end up having side conversations about why the school bus was late that morning….


Weekend bookends #11 Sept 13 2014

It’s been a while since I did one of these posts about book related news items that I missed at the time and you may have missed also.

Since September is back to school/college time it seems the right moment to talk about a few programmes and courses offered by some of our educational institutions.

Open University: My Shakespeare

One thing I have certainly missed hearing about is a Sky Arts television documentary series called My Shakespeare in which leading actors My Shakespeare present the stories of, and the stories behind, some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. In this collaboration with the Open University, Joseph Fiennes talks about Romeo and Juliet for example, while Morgan Freeman explores The Taming of the Shrew. I don’t have a Sky subscription so will not get to see any of these unfortunately but if you do have access, you can read more about the programme via the Shakespeare pages on the Open University website.

Open University: Secret World of Books

Monsieur BookerTalk stumbled across a late night BBC4 programme in which Simon Russell Beale read extracts from Hamlet. His rendition of “to be or not to be…” was apparently the best that my esteemed partner has ever heard (high praise from one who until now had considered Richard Burton’s recording as the bees knees.) It rang a vague bell and then I remembered an email from the Open University announcing this new series together with a free App. I had tried downloading the App but the remote WIFI connection was too slow so I gave up and then promptly forgot about the whole series.

It’s a series of six programmes which revisit original texts, manuscripts, diaries and correspondence of some classic works of fiction including Frankenstein, Great Expectations and Mrs Dalloway. Kudos to the BBC for not only including something from my home country but choosing a text that isn’t as mainstream, The Mabinogian. For those of you who are not from Wales this is a classic work of literature which consists of 11 folk tales and legends.


If you can’t get to watch the programmes in real time, they should be available on the iPlayer. There is more info about the series on the Open University page – it also gives you the option to download a free App for your mobile device and some e versions of the texts.

I’ve seen a number of comments that the App is slow to download – I just had another go and didn’t encounter any problems.

Coursera: Comic and graphic novels

This genre (or is a sub genre?) isn’t something that particularly appeals to me but they do have a huge and enthusiastic fan following. So if these kinds of literary works light your fire, you might want to sign up of a free Coursera module which discusses whether they can be considered as literary art. It’s about to start and will last for seven weeks. To register go to


Hope you find something you enjoy here. Have any of you come across other interesting courses offered by universities or academic groups? If so, did you register or follow them and what did you think about them?

Man Booker 2015 shortlist announced

The Man Booker judges announced today the six books shortlisted for this year’s award      producing a list that despite all concerns about dominance by American authors, actually has a good global spread.  We have two US, three British  ( the judges are classing Neel Mukherjee as British although he originates from India) and one Australian.

No surprises to find Ali Smith on the list but I wasn’t expecting to see Karen Joy Fowler make it through to the penultimate round. Perhaps I’m being unfair to her since I’m only part way through We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. It reads very smoothly so far but I still wouldn’t out it in the same class as The Lives of Others which I read earlier this summer and enjoyed hugely.  A copy of Howard Jacobson’s novel  J that I reserved with my local library has just become available and will be waiting for me on my return from holidays this weekend so I should be able to read that before the winner is announced on October 14.

Anyone care to speculate which of these authors will be declared the 2015 winner? I would love to see the prize go to  Neel Mukherjee but I suspect that won’t be the case  and instead we will see it third time lucky for Ali Smith since her book features the kind of experimental narrative structure that the judges seem to like yet still is considered “readable”.

The Shortlist

To Rise Again At a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
J by Howard Jacobson
The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee
How to Be Both by Ali Smith

Travel the World Readathon day 7 update

blog globe small 1I hardly ever join readathons but one hosted by Lost in Books, Savy  Working Girl and Momssmallvictories caught my eye because it’s focused on reading books from outside your own country which is one of my current projects. Travel the World through Books also has coincided with my holiday when I knew I would have more time to read than usual.

Today is end of the first of this two week challenge and I’ve done well so far in terms of the range of countries covered. I’ve ‘visited’ China in the late nineteenth/ early twentieth centuries through Pearl S Buck’s Pulitzer prize winning novel The Good Earth and contemporary Eire with Niall Williams’ Booker longlisted title History of the Rain. By coincidence both of these books have a rural setting though Buck’s protagonist is significantly more successful at farming than than the family in Williams’ novel.

To finish up this short readathon I’m going to finish Nagasaki by the French author Erik Fraye which is a curious book based on a real life incident in Japan where a meteorologist discovers a woman has stowed away I. His apartment for almost a year without his knowledge. And I’m hoping to make some progress with The Infatuations by the Spanish author Javiar Marais. I’ve read about 70 pages so far and am not enamoured with it so far because of the verbose prose. His sentences are very long and contain so many clauses and sub clauses that by the time I’ve reached the full stop I’ve forgotten the beginning. I hope it picks up soon.

Find out more about the readathon at

Sunday Salon: finding an old friend

In the late 1990s I began to yearn for a device that would let me read books electronically. The advent of the iPod meant I no longer had to lug CDs and a bulky player plus spare batteries with me on holidays or business trips. I could now carry thousands of songs in the palm of my hand but still had the weight of many books in my suitcase. I discovered that an electronic book reader sundaysalonwas something the big technology companies were working on. It it seemed a long way off before they would ever get anything to market.  And then a solution materialised from an unexpected source with Amazons launch of the Kindle.

I wanted one immediately but couldn’t really justify buying one at around £400 for the UK version. I waited and waited for the inevitable price drop but it was very slow to materialise. In the meantime Sony launched their own device at a much more acceptable price.  It was light but not that easy to use since downloading books involved complicated manoeuvres. Still it was a big advance and I enjoyed using it for about six months until it badly malfunctioned and had to be replaced. (To their credit, the service from Sony was excellent). But I’d seen a Kindle in action and it was definitely superior to the e reader. The price came down, I went for it and enjoyed another year without the risk of excess baggage charges from too many books in the suitcase. My Kindle proved ideal when I wanted to sit in a park since I could easily fit it into my handbag and was discrete enough I could read while in a restaurant.  I proved to be a fickle user however because as soon as an iPad came my way one Christmas, my poor Kindle became the unwanted child. Soon it was the IPad that traveled everywhere with and the Kindle became relegated to a dark shelf somewhere.

And that stayed the case until just a few weeks ago when I was packing for a holiday in Spain and remembered that the one big drawback of the iPad is that the screen becomes unreadable in bright sunshine. Not much use then for reading on a Spanish balcony or in the piazza. I began to think that maybe the Kindle was a better option after all. It was more lightweight than the iPad, the screen technology worked significantly better in bright light and I could easily download any new books as long as I had an Internet connection.

The upshot is that I ended up bringing both devices with me. I  can carry the Kindle in a small backpack during the day for the occasional opportunities while sitting at a pavement cafe for example but I still have the iPad for emails and webs surfing.  Neither device is ideal in itself but  I’m hoping one day soon some techno experts will be able to combine the benefits of both these approaches.



The Long Way Home by Louise Penny

LongWayHomeWithin just a few pages of The Long Way Home it’s evident that you’re in the hands of an accomplished writer. This is the latest novel in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series by Canadian best selling author Louise Penny and if the plot of this tenth title seems a little weaker than its predecessors, the psychological perspectives, strong sense of place and memorable characters are undiminished.

Gamache, newly retired from his post as head of the Sûreté du Québec has moved from Montreal to live in the village of Three Pines with his wife Reine-Marie. It’s a time for reflection and a time for healing after his incendiary confrontation with terrorism and police corruption in the last novel How the Light Gets In. The quietude of Three Pines, a village so small it hardly exits on any map, seems the perfect place in which to achieve the desired calm.

“Armand Gamache looked across to the deep green midsummer forest and the mountains that rolled into eternity. Then his eyes dropped to the village in the valley below them, as though held in the palm of an ancient hand. A stigmata in the Québec countryside. Not a wound, but a wonder.”

But if Armad has come here to make a fresh start, he cannot ignore a personal request from the artist Clara Morrow, one of his neighbours, to use his detective skills and contacts. Her estranged husband, Peter, also an artist but one whose career has been eclipsed by his wife’s success, has failed to make an agreed rendezvous to reassess their marraige. Gamache ropes in his former detective partner and son in law Jean-Guy Beauvoir, to try and trace the missing man. Their search takes them on a journey into the darker side of the artistic world, revealing jealousies and the despair over unfulfilled talent.

A few Three Pines residents familiar from earlier novels make a reappearance in The Long Way Home including Gabi and Oliver who run the bistro which becomes the de facto search team HQ and Myrna the bookshop owner. The acerbic highly talented poet Ruth Zardo gets to show a side of her character hitherto unknown, providing critical insight Into the mind of the artist.

“Peter always had a ‘best before’ date stamped on his forehead,” said Ruth. “People who live in their heads do. They start out well enough, but eventually they run out of ideas. And if there’s no imagination, no inspiration to fall back on? Then what?”

Pride of place of course goes to Clara who makes it clear that although she wants the detective’s help, it’s her husband who is missing so she gets to decide how they find him.

All the elements exist for a very good mystery novel. The most enjoyable aspect of this book for me however lay beyond the discovery of what happened to Peter and related more to the themes that are woven throughout the pages.  Chief among these is the reconciliation and self enlightenment. The main characters in this book are all on a journey of some kind that will take them closer to understanding themselves and what matters most. (In her introduction, Penny says she was influenced by Homer’s The Odyssey and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness).

For Armand, the return to the procedures of detection rekindles his belief that while there is a world of beauty and love it is also one filled with killers and cruelty that he feels compelled to act and to stop. By the end of the novel he, like the village, has found a new sense of calm and of a new beginning.

What Louise Penny does next with this series will be very interesting to see. She hasn’t given any indication that this is the last Inspector Gamache story and having built such a strong protagonist whose ‘brand’ has resonated with millions of readers, why would she? But having retired him to one of the smallest communities in rural Quebec, it’s going to be tough to find convincing mysteries in which he can exercise his prowess.

End Notes
A Long Way Home was published in the UK in August 2014. Thanks to Sphere for providing me with an advance copy via NetGalley.

Louise Penny talked recently to NPR about her latest book. listen to the recording at


September Snapshot

Day 1 of a new month and it’s time to take a snapshot of what I’m reading, listening to and watching.


I’m in the closing stages of History of the Rain by Niall Williams which was long listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize. I enjoyed most of it, particularly the humourous reflections of its narrator Ruth Swain on the history of her eccentric family. At 19 years old she’s confined to bed by an unnamed blood disorder. Her attic room is filled with thousands of books once owned by her poet father. Through them Ruth tells his story and her own.

Next on my list to read is The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck, an author of Chinese origin whose work I’ve not experienced until now. The Good Earth, the first in a trilogy about family life in a Chinese village was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and influenced Buck’s award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.

Listening .

On the iPod is Elizabeth of York by Alison Weir. The Wars of the Roses period and the Tudor dynasty were staple topics on my school and college curricula but Elizabeth ( wife of one king, mother to another and grandmother to three monarchs) only got a small walk on part. Weir’s biography published in 2013 helps redress the balance.


I’m not watching anything much at the moment since all the hotel can offer its visitors who want English language programmes is the tedious BBC World  and the equally tedious CNN. Neither of these I find satisfying because they spend no more than about two minutes on a story before moving to the next. You get about five stories in the segment and then the next before we get some trailers for upcoming programmes and the  weather everywhere in the world except where you are at that precise moment. Then the whole cycle starts again as if they don’t believe that viewers can retain info for longer than 10 minutes. It’s rather like having a meal made entirely of appetisers.



The classics from page to screen

This month The Classics Club asks:


What are your thoughts on adaptions of classics? Sclassicsclub3ay mini-series or movies? Or maybe modern approaches? Are there any good ones? Is it better to read the book first? Or maybe just compare the book and an adaptation?

I grew up in an era when the BBC could be relied upon for high class productions based on classic novels. Watching these serials was a highlight of the week in my childhood and early adolescence. It was how I first experienced many  Dickens’ novels. Watching some of them now they feel rather stilted in comparison to the realistic dialogue and filmic qualities seen in recent adaptations. When you see that the screenplay is by Andrew Davies (the writer behind the version of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth ) there’s a pretty high level of certainty it will be worth watching.

As good as that version of Austen’s novel was, there are still some classic interpretations from an earlier era that have stood the test of time. My  three favourites are:

Middlemarch. BBC production from 1994 starring Juliet Aubrey and Rufus Sewell

Jewel in The Crown. The ITV adaptation of Paul Scott’s saga set in India broadcast in 1984 and featured superb performances by Peggy Ashcroft, Tim Piggott Smith and Geraldine James

Martin Chuzzlewit. Another 1994 BBC series. Tom Wilkinson as Mr Pecksniff is the creme of many fine performances

All of them withstand repeat viewings.

Watching them while you’re reading the actual book can help to fix the relationships between characters and multiple plot lines more clearly in the mind – particularly helpful with Dickens who can often have a large cast list and multiple plot strands. But they’re not a substitute for reading the book itself. Watching the adaptation of  Middlemarch you understand the ways that Eliot makes connections between the ambitions of Dorothea and those of Lydgate but what you can’t appreciate is the subtle way in which Eliot’s novel hows the whole of society as a web of connections. For that you have to get close and personal with the text itself.