Montalbano’s First Case by Andrea Camilleri

“The Japanese tourists were competing in an all-out war, using the weapons of lethal politeness to compete for window space to take pictures. At the second stop, the driver has to get up to help an old couple of about a hundred onto the bus.”

For light relief, I turn to the Inspector Montalbano crime novel series written by Andrea Camilleri. Salvo Montalbano is one of my favourite detectives–he is not an alcoholic, and neither is he burned out and world-weary. In fact, Montalbano, who adores good food and loves life, is a refreshing change. The Montalbano novels are light on violence, gore is absent, and instead the novels fly on Montalbano’s humour, his sense of justice, and a supporting cast of quirky characters. It doesn’t hurt that these novels are set in Vigata, a fictional coastal town in Sicily and that Montalbano lives in a house (we’d all love to live in) that commands a fantastic ocean view. Reading a Montalbano novel is pure pleasure and a return to a life we wouldn’t mind sharing. Montalbano has a unique approach to crime solving, and while political corruption should be his largest stumbling block, Montalbano doesn’t bother fighting the corruption, but instead he subverts it until the corrupt system moves in the direction he wants it to go.

Montalbano's first caseMontalbano’s First Case, is the prequel to the series,  it’s 1985, and 35 year-old Salvo Montalbano is at an important crossroads in his career. Montalbano is under apprenticeship as “deputy of Mascalippa,” a small town in the Erean Mountains. While many people would love to work in this picturesque area, Montalbano hates it and considers the mountain air positively unhealthy.  He knows that he’ll be transferred soon, and he longs to move to the coast. Of course, for those familiar with the series you know that Montalbano gets what he wants, and he’s transferred to Vigata. He arrives there fresh from the tutelage of Chief Inspector Libero Sanfillipo, a man who knew “how to keep his inner balance in the face of serious and upsetting events.” Sanfillipo advises Montalbano:

If you let yourself be overrun by your emotions, by dismay, horror, indignation, and empathy, you’re completely fucked.

For those who’ve already read some of the Inspector Montalbano series, then you’ll recognize that Montalbano followed his mentor’s advice–not always so successfully, because Montalbano has a temper and a short fuse when it comes to dealing with frustration and incompetence.

Montalbano can’t believe his luck when he hears that he’s being posted to Vigata. The brand new Chief Inspector already has a history with the region, and so he’s delighted to return to an area he knows and loves. Of course the transfer means that he’ll be farther from his long-term girlfriend, but the relationship seems to thrive on personal space and distance. He’s forewarned that the area is managed by two mafia families: the Cuffaros and the Sinagras–“each family had its own saint in paradise,”  and in this case that translates to mean that each family has a powerful political representative in their pockets.

Montalbano’s very first scouting trip to Vigata sees him involved in a crime in which the power of the mafia dwarfs the rights of an elderly resident. A seemingly simple traffic accident that morphs into an assault charge forces Montalbano to testify in a fixed case, so Montalbano is instantly educated in the reality of the justice system through a laughable trial that is pure “theater.” But even more than that, Montalbano becomes involved with a strange case involving Rosanna, a local girl, a girl who’s been thrown out of her home by her family for her so-called promiscuous behaviour. The girl who lives, literally, in a pig pen, is an assassin, and yet she appears to have the mental abilities of a 5 year-old. While Montalbano unravels this mystery, somehow or another he has the feeling he’s being played, and since he is never one to settle for the easy solution, he keeps digging….

Montalbano’s First Case is certain to delight fans of this wonderful series. This novella (97 pages according to Amazon) fills in some blanks while showing Montalbano in embryo. All of his key characteristics are there, so we see him keeping his girlfriend at arm’s length, indulging in various  extraordinary gastronomic adventures, and feeling less than content with various aspects of the investigation. Some favourite characters are also here–Fazio and journalist, Zito. We also see how far Montalbano will go to solve a case. He doesn’t care too much about rules and regulations, but there’s a strong sense of justice tempered with compassion, and in this, Montalbano’s First Case, we see just how Montalbano manipulates a corrupt system to get what he wants.

Not surprisingly, Montalbano has transferred well to film, so there’s an entire series of Inspector Montalbano films–including The Young Montalbano which includes this story.

Translated by Gianluca Rizzo and Dominic Siracusa

Review copy.


Filed under Camilleri, Andrea, Fiction

30 responses to “Montalbano’s First Case by Andrea Camilleri

  1. I was always tempted by his boks but never knew if i would like them. High praise from you tells me I’d like him. Is this one of those series that you need to read in order? It’s a very long series by now.

    • Things happen in the lives of the repeat characters so I think it helps to read it in order. The author has supposedly written the last novel in the series which is sad, but then the author was born in 1925, so perhaps he wanted to tie the series up for readers. Or else he was fed up with it!

      I read some reviews that recommended reading the series first before reading this, but I don’t think that’s necessary.

  2. I’m a massive fan of the Montalbano series – it’s one of the very few things made by Italian TV that’s worth watching, and not only because of Luca Zingaretti, the actor who plays him (although he’s perfect for the part, and otherwise). I have the added advantage of sharing my life, and TV viewing, with someone who was born a few miles away from the fictional Vigata, and can help me when the dialect takes me outside my linguistic comfort zone. (As a bonus of watching the series, my knowledge of Ragusan dialect has increased exponentially!) I haven’t read this one, or seen it – for some reason, I’ve never been around when The Young Montalbano has been on – but it sounds up to scratch.

    By the way, I’m currently reading (as Goodreads has it) The Sleep Room, and thoroughly enjoying it. Thank you once again for putting me on to someone I might never have come across otherwise. Tallis and Swierczynski in one year. Bravo!

    • The series is a lot of fun and it’s always something you want to watch–the location, the characters…
      I didn’t know this was out there either, so I was pleasantly surprised to see it, and it meshes nicely with the rest of the series. Tell me, is the fictional Vigata like the real region at all?

      Glad you are enjoying the Tallis novel. Creepy isn’t it?

      • Well, I’ve watched just about every episode these past few months, because it’s a stalwart of summer programming here. Yes, the real life Vigata has a lot in common with the fictional one, although the houses aren’t always as wonderful and the women tend to wear a little more above the waist. But the food is definitely as good as it looks. On a more serious note, the intermeshing of politics and organised crime is, alas, if anything slightly underplayed. One of the joys of watching it here in Italy is that most episodes are introduced, in Hitchcockian fashion, by Camilleri himself, and he’s a wonderful character. An unrepentant chain-smoker, left-wing, with the most lugubrious voice you can imagine. To hear him say a word like ‘argilloso’ is one of life’s more unexpected pleasures.

        Creepy? It certainly is.

        • I expected the food to be the way it’s slavishly described in the book (almost droolingly), but the clothes, well…. It must be wonderful to see the author introducing the stories, and no doubt adds a certain panache to the film.

  3. It sounds like though a good writer Camilleri, really writes about mysteries and characters that are fun. As you allude to, it is refreshing that his protagonist is of the brighter sort of personality.

    • I was all proud of myself when I came across Camilleri thinking that I’d really dug deep and found this unknown gem. Then I found out that he’s considered one of Italy’s greatest exports.

  4. He is one of Italy’s great exports.

    As you know, Mrs. KfC and I love Montalbano (more from the tv series than the books, I have to admit). As your review indicates, over time Camilleri creates a series of communities that are very engaging, While I don’t think the Young Montalbano is quite up to the originals, it is still very good — that’s like saying it gets 8 out of 10, not 9.

    • Thanks for the comment Kevin as I knew you’d watched the films and could offer an opinion. I own the Young M dvds but haven’t watched them yet. I wondered if they’d be as good as the others.

  5. I haven’t read this series but I’ve heard about it.
    Reading your introduction, I was thinking that Montalbano and Adamsberg could be friends.

  6. leroyhunter

    I was given one as a gift years ago but have never read it. Must dig it out some time. I read a couple of the Zen books and wasn’t mad about them, so maybe that has put me off.

    • I haven’t read the Zen books (they put me off) so I can’t compare. Sometimes I’m in the mood for Montalbano, and while I love the books, I wouldn’t want a steady diet of them as I’d stop appreciating their lightness and humour. Of course, I sprang right from the light-hearted Montalbano to the very dark Ken Bruen.

      • leroyhunter

        Not to mention Malaparte…looking forward to that review.

        I’ll read the Montalbano I have. There’s a lot of positive opinion for him here so worth a look clearly.

  7. I’ve only seen one of the tv series, but I absolutely loved it. I particularly liked the intensely Italian way he’d prioritise eating well during his case. It was also frankly refreshing as you say to see a cop who’s not burnt out and world weary etc.

    Charles, the tv series Romanzo Criminale (two seasons) is also excellent, well the first season is anyway. I haven’t watched the second yet. The film’s also good. Haven’t read the original book yet.

    Count me as another who didn’t love Zen. I read two but didn’t like them enough to continue. Dibdin has many loyal fans so that’s no doubt my loss, but if the chemistry isn’t there between a reader and a writer there’s not much you can do about it.

    The house by the sea reminds me of the protagonist in Total Kheops (Total Chaos) by Jean-Claude Izzo. It’s a work of Marseilles noir, brilliant but I absolutely lusted for my own house by the sea like that the protagonist had.

    • I haven’t seen Romanzo Criminale, Max, although I know it did very well here in viewing terms. I imagine it offers a much more nitty-gritty picture of Italy than Montalbano, and one that’s closer to (my) home.

      Dibdin. Interesting that no one is keen on him, because neither am I (and this isn’t professional sour grapes, honestly…) I read the first couple, set in Venice, and enjoyed them, although all I remember of them is the chilling image of the rat-king. But one set in Rome was so full of errors about the place I lost my patience with the series and stopped. A couple of years ago I had another go with a much more recent one, where a plot twist hinges on Zen and another character confusing the two words ‘son’ and ‘sun’: homophones in English but not in Italian, the language they were supposed to be speaking. At this point, I dashed the book to the floor. (Well, not quite, but damn close…And, while I’m here in these brackets, can anyone explain why, in the UK TV series, some of the characters, including Zen, spoke standard English, while others, usually women, did the whole thing in a pseudo-Italian accent?)

      • Definitely gritty, but very well done. Italian tv is generally dire, this is a definite exception.

        The Zen books, eh, they were fine but as you say there was no depth to the treatment of Italy. It was painted on. Tim Parks wrote two comic-crime novels set in Italy which were much better and had a much greater feel for the place. Caro Massimina and I forget the other title. Arguably a bit derivative of the Tom Ripley books, but good derivative and quality is more important than originality I tend to think.

        Figlio and sole? I can’t see any conceivable way an Italian could get those mixed up. That’s fairly terrible actually. The accents in the tv series were a bit odd. I think it’s because the main female character was were there to be sexy and exotic and Italian, while the men were actually full characters.

  8. The Fabio Montale trilogy is on film and well worth checking out. It stars Alain Delon. I wouldn’t want a steady diet of Montalbano, but reading his novels are a literary equivalent of taking the spa waters.

  9. Charles you bring up some good points. I tend to avoid crime written by one nationality who’s created a fictional detective of another nationality. There are exceptions, of course, but I find that same lack of authenticity. Rather like a tourist looking on but never quite ‘getting’ it.

    • It’s always interesting to see what writers who live abroad do with their knowledge of – and interest in – the country of adoption. Tim Parks tends to see Italy through the eyes of an English narrator, or main character, and I think that’s the wisest choice, although, as you know, I’m partial to a mixed-race bilingual protagonist myself! I will say, though, as a sort of teaser, that the principal figure in my new novel is an English ex-pat…

      • I agree that it’s the “wiser choice” re: writers abroad. Back to that old advice from Henry James–write what you know. I’ve tried crime novels (inadvertently) written by Americans as English sleuths, British as French sleuths and most of them have been god-awful. A combination of leering tourism and sycophantic fawning over a culture they are obviously potty about. One exception that comes to mind is the sadly, late Leighton Gage, an American living in Brazil who wrote some excellent Brazilian crime novels.

        I read Loving Roger by Tim Parks thanks to a rec. from Max. Loved it.

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