Mafia, Murder, and Other Misdeeds: Travails of a Sicilian Policeman
By Vikas Datta
Notoriety can become all-encompassing — and eclipsing. Colombia, for example. In popular imagination, it is so identified with the illicit drug trade — and consequent lawlessness — that leave alone its vibrant culture (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), we tend to forget that there are millions of normal citizens living there too. Sicily, the homeland of the Mafia, is another.
Happily for the sunny, yet dark, Italian island, it had a remarkable chronicler. Through the eyes of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano, we can see a vibrant and variegated milieu of life there, through various characters, situations, and settings.
Of course, crimes do predominate since our hero is a policeman — and there are malefactors beyond the Mafia and some of these can even prove to be more vicious.
But let’s begin with the author.
The Sicily-born Camilleri (1925-2019) came to writing considerably late in life. Having studied stage and film direction at the Silvio D’Amico Academy of Dramatic Arts in Rome, he worked as a play director and screenwriter, before switching over to working on TV productions for Italian state public broadcaster RAI.
In 1977, he returned to his alma mater, where he held the chair of Film Direction for the next two decades, and it was only then that he began writing.
Camilleri’s first two books, out in 1978 and 1980, did not wake any waves, and he put this endeavour on hold till 1992, when his “The Hunting Season” (English in 2014), a standalone historical murder mystery, became a best-seller.
He began the Inspector Montalbano series in 1994, and six of them appeared in Italian till 2002, when the English translations, starting with “The Shape of Water” (2002), catapulted the series to global attention.
All this was courtesy of Stephen Sarterelli, who perfectly rendered Camilleri’s mix of Italian, Sicilianised Italian and Sicilian dialect, and provided notes explaining some particular Italian/Sicilian references.
Camilleri was a prolific author with a new Montalbano novel coming out almost every year, and sometimes twice a year, save one three-year gap in the early days. He admitted, however, that his most famous creation — like many other famous authors’ (Sherlock Holmes for one) — was a “serial killer of characters”, demanding greater attention from his author to the detriment of other potential books and characters.
There have been other Italian police procedurals — by both Italian and foreign writers — such as Michael Dibdin’s peripatetic Inspector Aurelio Zen, Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti, or Grace Brophy’s Allesandro Cenni, or for that matter, policeman-turned-novelist Michele Giuttari’s nearly-autobiographical Chief Superintendent Michele Ferrara, or Valerio Varesi’s Commissario Soneri, but Camileri’s Montalbano outpaces all of them in both volume and scope. The TV series based on the series further boosted its popularity.
Set in the fictional town of Vigata (based on Camiller’s own hometown of Porto Empedocle), the series, which totals 30 (in English, 20 novels and two collections of short stories) offer some engrossing mysteries, concerning some gruesome, unconscionable crimes, verging on the macabre and noir, murky politics, Mafia depredations (the town has two rival clans), revenge and vendetta, financial scams, organ harvesting, human trafficking, intelligence operations, and so on.
All this is enlivened with some pointed social and political commentary (then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the fluidity of Italian politics is a frequent target), as well as subtle observations on relationships, loneliness, and aging but still maintaining a light touch, and even comic — spanning from pure slapstick to surreal.
Then, they can boast of some singularly unforgettable characters, right from the quirky Montalbano, whose name is homage to Spanish mystery writer Manuel Vazquez Montalban, and who, like the latter’s private investigator Pepe Carvalho, is a gourmet.
A “loose cannon” for most of his rule-bound bosses and peers, he is efficient in his odd combination of lethargic cynicism and active commitment, and use of unorthodox approaches — unlikely to be found in any police manual — to both solve the crime and ensure the guilty, no matter how powerful or influential, get their just desserts.
In various outings, Montalbano lies to or lays clever traps for suspects, hides crucial evidence from his superiors but takes advantage of it, including leaking it to the media, and carries out unauthorised searches with their connivance.
Personally, he can be rude; he can get depressed — for which he takes solace in drink to the point of insensibility; he’s often ensnared by women — suspects, witnesses, or even others, to the point of infidelity to his long-distance love interest, Livia; he can be brusque with his subordinates but also impish and mischievous; and he has various other quirks that make him unforgettable. And there are his dreams, his morning routines.
Montalbano has equally idiosyncratic colleagues — the amorous Mimi Augello, the capable but bureaucratic-minded Fazio, the police station receptionist Catarella, who can’t remember names or numbers without mangling them or shut doors properly, but is a computer whiz, the irascible pathologist Pasquano, and more.
Then there are the bosses — initially, the understanding Commissioner Burlando but then his pompous replacement Bonetti-Alderighi, fixated prosecutor Lo Bianco and his sex-crazed replacement Tommasino, his confidante Ingrid, whom he saves from being framed in his first outing, his journalist friend Nicolo Zito, enemy journalist Pippo Ragonese, aged Mafia don Balduccio Sinagra, and a host of other endearingly eccentric characters.
It is not possible to sketch out all the books in the series. Some representative ones could be the multi-themed “The Terracotta Dog” (2004), where a violent feud is overtaken by an old murder case our Inspector chances open and seeks to investigate before anything else; “The Snack Thief” (2004), where what seems like a straight-forward crime turns out to be tied to murky intelligence operations; “Excursion to Tindari” (2006), which deals with a ghastly crime, and how the inspector orchestrates an end to his deputy’s love life.
Then there is “The Wings of the Sphinx” (2009) for one of the best examples of his technique to put suspects in a spot; “The Potter’s Field” (2011) for its intricate plot; “The Age of Doubt” (2012) for its marvellous opening scene; “A Voice in the Night” (2016) for how he plays loose and fast with procedure to achieve his aim; “The Safety Net” (2020) for both its opening part about how the filming of a joint Italian-Swedish period drama shakes the town and upends Montalbano’s routine, and then, the rare crime — and the guilt it engendered — that is brought to his notice.
There are a few that are not so good, especially in the latter stretch, and they show some minor discrepancies too — a lawyer who is shown as representative of one of the two feuding Mafia families throughout the series is attributed to the other one once, one story has no clarity on the fate of a missing person, and so on.
With Montalbano debuting as a fully-formed character, what is lacking is insight into issues like how he and Livia met each other and began their relationship — given they live and work in opposite ends of the country. Then, while one of the stories — in the only two anthologies in English, providing translations of just a mere handful of the dozens of short stories Camilleri penned — deals with his initial career and his eventual posting to Vigata, there is no account of his initial meeting with his subordinates.
With Camilleri passing away, these will remain unsolved mysteries of literature.
Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org