Category Archives: Camilleri, Andrea

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.

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Voice of the Violin by Andrea Camilleri

“The inspector contemplated his superior’s disturbing hairdo, which was very full with a great big tuft in the middle that curled back like certain turds deposited in the open country. An exact replica of the coif of that criminally insane psychiatrist who’d triggered all the butchery in Bosnia.”

I am currently reading the 13th novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, Germinal, and if you have read the novel, you know it’s about French miners–French miners in the 19th century who slave under the most horrendous, unsafe conditions and barely make enough to eat. Well if that sounds downright depressing, you’d be right, and so I decided I needed something to read along with Germinal–something a little lighter. And so I turned to Andrea Camilleri’s novel, Voice of the Violin.

Voice of the Violin is the fourth novel in the Sicilian Inspector Montalbano mysteries. As I write this, I realize that it probably sounds odd to pick an Italian crime novel set in Sicily as ‘light’ reading, but that will probably give you a fair idea of the sort of crime novel Camilleri writes. Light on violence, no gore, & heavy on the humour which is mainly found in the protagonist, Salvo Montalbano.

Voice of the Violin is, so far at least, the weakest in the series. Bear in mind I’ve only read four, and funnily enough, the third novel, The Snack Thief, was the best to date.

In Voice of the Violin,  Montalbano investigates the murder of a beautiful young socialite. She is found naked, with her head shoved down into the mattress, and the autopsy reveals that she was suffocated–possibly during sex. While Montalbano painstakingly pieces together the woman’s last hours, he runs into a few stumbling blocks. The woman, Michela Licalzi, was married to a wealthy doctor, but to complicate matters, she led an almost completely separate life from her spouse and she had a lover.

Montalbano knows the victim’s identity, has the crime scene, but vital pieces of information are missing. Where are the victim’s clothes, for example?

As the investigation continues, Montalbano rubs shoulders with some helpful mafiosa who’d really like to buy his soul and butts head with a macho, corrupt Captain from the Flying Squad. Meanwhile he juggles the investigation with his troubled personal life. Still involved in his long-distance relationship with long-time lover, Livia, he faces temptation from Michela’s best friend.

With police detective series novels, it’s always a juggling act , and a fine balance must be maintained between the crime and the series detective. After all, we readers become fond of the series detective–that’s why we keep reading. In Voice of the Violin, while the crime doesn’t fade, the victim does. And although a few details of Michela’s life emerge, her corpse seems little more than a plot device to kick the story into action.  But perhaps I am still feeling the after-effects of reading Derek Raymond’s He Died With His Eyes Open–a novel in which a police detective practically merges his own identity with the victim…..

Of course, Montalbano is strongly present: grumpy, unpredictable, naked at times and always in search of the next gastronomic indulgence. Well, I have more Montalbano mysteries on my shelf, and I expected some to be better than others. In Voice of the Violin, Montalbano makes some huge errors, and he admits this, but at the same time, he battles police corruption in his own inimitable way–by rolling with it and playing the game with just enough underhand craftiness combined with bureaucratic finesse that he gets his way–eventually.

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The Snack Thief by Andrea Camilleri

“You know what you are Salvo? You’re a colander that leaks water out of a thousand holes, and all I’m ever doing is trying to plug as many holes as possible. ”

The Snack Thief is the third novel in the wonderful Sicilian crime series by Andrea Camilleri. These books just seem to get better and better, but perhaps I’m just getting fonder of Camilleri’s protagonist, the irascible, gourmet-food driven Inspector Salvo Montalbano. Opening up a Camilleri novel to read more adventures of Montalbano is like meeting an old friend.

The Snack Thief begins with the death of a Tunisian man who was one of the crew on a fishing boat. Since the man was fired on from a Tunisian patrol boat while in international waters, Montalbano is told that this incident could have serious “international repercussions.” But Montalbano, never one to accept orders from his ‘superiors,’ valiantly tries his best to avoid involvement in the case.

But soon Montalbano is distracted from the Tunisian case by the murder of a local man, businessman Lapecora who’s found stabbed to death in a lift. The case puzzles Montalbano, and the various attitudes of the victim’s neighbours manage to annoy the Inspector–a man not known for his patience. As Montalbano tries to solve the murder, he uncovers some very peculiar information about the victim, and intrigued, Montalbano concentrates on solving the case. Montalbano interviews an interesting assortment of characters–a hen-pecked husband, a jealous wife, philandering husbands, and a brutal hit man.

During the course of his investigation, Montalbano, a connoisseur of gourmet food and a student of human nature, indulges in a great number of elaborate meals while uncovering a vast number of dirty secrets. Montalbano’s long-suffering, long-distance girlfriend Livia makes an appearance (and this causes Montalbano’s housekeeper to disappear). The Snack Thief is not only a delightful read, but for Camilleri fans, the book hints that Montalbano’s existence (which is hardly carefree) is about to change forever. Montalbano is a flawed human being–there’s no argument there. From the way he lies about what food he’s eaten, to the way he refuses to be a ‘team player’ (how I loathe that term). But Montalbano has the sort of flaws we can accept, identify with, and forgive easily.

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The Terra-Cotta Dog by Andrea Camilleri

“Upon hearing this last question, Montalbano–who was watching the broadcast from his home, and for the last half hour had been unsuccessfully searching for a clean pair of underpants, which he knew must be around somewhere–told the newsman to go fuck himself.”

The Terra-Cotta Dog from Italian crime author Andrea Camilleri is the second novel in the wonderful Inspector Montalbano series. In this episode in Montalbano’s food-centered life, he ‘captures’ a vicious Mafioso known as Tano the Greek, a man so violent that it’s reported he murdered his own brother by strangulation. The capture, which is really just a staged, face-saving cover for Tano’s surrender, brings three things to Montalbano: celebrity status, the threat of a promotion, and the discovery of a double murder that took place fifty years before.

The first novel in the series, The Shape of Water, shows Sicilian Inspector Montalbano struggling to solve crime in spite of the obstacles of corruption. This second novel shows Montalbano obsessing about two unidentified murder victims whose deaths were obscured by WWII, American bombings and the arrival of American troops in Vigata.

As always, author Camilleri creates some fascinatingly bizarre characters. In The Terra-Cotta Dog, the strangest character has to be the eccentric priest Alcide Maraventano who suckles from a baby’s bottle while contemplating death rituals. There’s also Inspector Sciacchitano “universally known as pusillanimous ass-lick,” and Judge Lo-Bianco whose one-track mind is still working on his “ponderous” Magnus opus, “The Life and Death of Rinaldo and Antonio Lo Bianco, Masters of Law at the University of Girgeti at the Time of King Martin the Younger (1402-1409).”

As Montalbano tries to solve the fifty-year old murders, he’s forced to work with the men in his department, and as always Montalbano does not ‘work well with others.’ Montalbano’s patient, long-suffering, long-distance girlfriend Livia makes an appearance, as does the inspector’s cook–a woman whose wizardry in the kitchen uncannily matches Montalbano’s moods.

Although we learn Montalbano’s distaste for fascists, The Terra-Cotta Dog is not an overtly political novel. Instead there’s the background noise of “the magistrates who had laid bare the dirty secrets of the political corruption [who] were resigning in protest.” Humor invades almost every page, and this is due to Montalbano’s playful personality. Whether he’s lounging in his underwear, evading a promotion or indulging in a dirty dream, Montalbano’s approach to life makes him someone we’d love to hang out with, but since that’s impossible, I’ll happily settle for a few hours spent reading about this delightful character.

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The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri

In the Italian crime novel, The Shape of Water, Signora Lupanello, the elegant, steely-nerved widow of a recently deceased Sicilian businessman tells Inspector Montalbano the following story:

‘One day I see that my friend had put a bowl, a cup, a teapot, and a square milk carton on the edge of a well, had filled them all with water and was looking at them attentively.
“What are you doing?” I asked him. And he answered me with a question in turn.
“What shape is water?”
“Water doesn’t have any shape!” I said laughing, “It takes the shape you give it.”  ‘

Similarly in the novel, The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri, Inspector Montalbano must investigate a crime that is shaped by the stories behind it. The question is…which story is true?

The novel begins with Silvio Lupanello, an engineer and local “big shot” who is found dead in the back seat of his car is less than honorable circumstances. With his trousers around his ankles, and with the car in a local open-air red light district known as “the Pasture,” it’s assumed that Lupanello died in the middle of sex. But to Inspector Montalbano, something doesn’t add up. Sniffing that something about the case is fishy, Montalbano doggedly insists on conducting an investigation:

“In addition to glossing over the circumstances of the engineer’s death, the newspapers also carefully ignored the rumors that had been swirling for untold years around far less public affairs in which he’d been involved. There was talk of rigged contract competition, kickbacks in the billions of lire, pressures applied to the point of extortion. And in all these instances the name that constantly popped up was that of counselor Rizzo, first the caddy, then the right-hand man, and finally the alter ego of Luparello. But these always remained rumors, voices in the air and on the wind. Some even said that Rizzo was a liaison between Luparello and the Mafia, and on this every subject the inspector had once managed to read a confidential report that spoke of currency smuggling and money laundering. Suspicions, of course, and nothing more, since they were never given a chance to be substantiated; every authorization request for an investigation had been lost in the labyrinths of that same courthouse the engineer’s father had designed and built.”

Interviewing prostitutes, pimps and a gorgeous young Swedish woman, Montalbano discovers that all is not as it seems. Lupanello’s perfectly staged death scene covers a trail of ambition, corruption and vice.

As a fan of crime fiction (and I have a special weakness for Italian crime fiction), I was delighted to discover and read my first Camilleri novel. Set in the Sicilian town of Vigata, corruption is a way of life. Given the frequency of shootouts from rival gangs, some deaths are never investigated, but the wealthy, influential Luparello is seen as a “client” to the police, “in their jargon a ‘client’ meant a death they should look into.” While not an overtly political novel, nonetheless, corruption in Italy is alluded to through references to “the earthquake unleashed by a handful of Milanese judges” (Falcone & Borsellino). Salvo Montalbano doesn’t fight corruption in local government and in his own police force as much as he tries to solve crimes in spite of these obstacles. For example, it becomes clear that someone in his department is leaking information, so he makes sure the leaks are only of information that will help flush the guilty from their hiding places.

Another great aspect of this novel is the humour. Montalbano first appears in the middle of a dirty dream, and at several junctions in the story, he’s forced to elude a particularly aggressive admirer. Montalbano is not an idealist–he’s a realist, and so consequently, he’s amused–more than anything else–to see the corrupt power structure attempt to shut down the investigation before he’s finished. All the government institutions involved in the crime (and some that have nothing to do with it) try their best to bury Lupanello and conclude the case, but the wily Montalbano, after receiving a number of phone calls intended to bring pressure to close the case, tells his ‘superiors’ that to conclude the case too hastily would arouse suspicion of a cover up, and so by using terms everyone can understand, Montalbano craftily buys time to finish his investigation.

The Shape of Water is the first Inspector Montalbano novel in this series from Andrea Camilleri who is considered one of Italy’s greatest 20th and 21st century writers. I find myself asking where Camilleri has been all my life, or perhaps, since I’m the delinquent reader here, it should be the other way around.

Camilleri’s Montalbano is a homage to the Spanish author Manuel Vazquez Montalban and his detective Pepe Carvalho. Series novels that feature a set character must make us care about the protagonist and Camilleri does this in his creation of Montalbano. Tidbits of information about Montalbano’s life appear throughout the novel–his ongoing relationship with Livia, for example, and his gastronomic habits, but what I particularly enjoyed about the novel, is the refreshing way Montalbano doesn’t get his knickers in a twist about things, but takes evil, crime and corruption in his stride (even though he may heave a heavy sigh). He negotiates a chain of corruption–beginning on page one with the introduction of the garbage collectors all the way up–by knowing and understanding it all too well.

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