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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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