The brooding Inspector Montelbano
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.
19 thoughts on “The brooding Inspector Montelbano”
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I love this series, both books and televised. I am not a fan of subtitled programmes mainly because I cannot do something else at the same time, but I can with this series and yes, he is speaking Sicilian.
There was also another series which was broadcast in the last year or so about a detective who is from Sicily and left to work as a policeman on the mainland – he left because his father was accused of something with a teenager and was also a policeman – after the death of his friend, who was a criminal lawyer on the side of the prosecution he returns home to solve the murder of his friend, which links to his father’s murder rather than what was suspected as suicide and of course has a dose of links to the Mafia – I could not recall the name except that it had the word Malta in it, a Google search and it is Maltese: The Mafia Detective
https://www.channel4.com/programmes/maltese-the-mafia-detective – set in Sicily during the 1970’s. Not much of a TV watcher, but I watched the complete series on demand over two days.
I struggle with sub titles also Julie. There was a programme last year from S4C which is the Welsh language channel that they filmed in Welsh and also did an English version but still had a lot of Welsh dialogue. Very confusing…. Will have a look for the Mafia Detective …
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This would fit that need pretty well Brona
Ahhh I have the first Montalbano on my TBR pile somewhere. I’m feeling in the mood for something light and easy – this sounds like just the treat I need 🙂
Maybe it is worth mentioning that Catarella is not speaking Italian, but rather Sicilian with some mangled bureaucratic Italian mixed in.
I feel suitably chastised Tom for mixing my Sicilian with my Italian. It’s not always bureaucratic lingo though is it, I thought I remembered the the mangles people’s names also or did I dream that?
It took me a while to get used to Catarella. But his dialogue is a problem that the translator has to solve somehow. Nothing will be quite right. The mixed up names are likely the easy part.
Detective beyond Borders recently had a terrific interview with the translator. Sartarelli discusses the Catarella problem in Part II.
Thanks for that link Tom. I’ll take a look when I get a moment
Love this series but have not touched it in years! Your review is making me want to go back…I read the Shape of Water and Rounding the Mark — and two more. I loved the writing about the food, wine and cooking. Actually, loved the receptionist Cat in the books. Is Montelbano still with Livia, the sort of bitchy fiancee? Definitely need to revisit this series, thanks for the review!
Ah, I just re-read your review and see his still with Livia, ok.
Well he is but it doesn’t seem that strong a relationship since he always seems to have an eye (and his hands) on another woman
I’ve been thinking about trying to get into this series through the television version because I have now had three unsuccessful attempts to read the novels. Perhaps starting at the beginning was my mistake but I think not as it was his writing style that I found really irritating. However, perhaps I should try jumping in later and see if I get on any better.
I wouldn’t put the writing style as one of the strong features of the book, it’s just fun to read in small quantities.
Well there’s an argument to do so as there are various incidents in Montalbano’s private life going on as background, so I think it’s helpful to read them in order.
I should also mention that I tried Hunting Season by the author. A non Montalbano novel and was horribly disappointed. It was promoted as a “quirky” murder mystery but was crude and bawdy. I am no prude but I found it in very poor taste.
Hm wonder if that was written before he got into Montelbano mode. I can withstand a certain about of swearing but it has to have a point. Too often it’s just gratuitous.
I’m a big fan of the books. There’s a new one coming out next year: Game of Mirrors.
do you think they need to be read in order Guy?