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.
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.