Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series features a sardonic detective—part Columbo, part Vincent D’Onofrio’s Criminal Intent sleuth—whose adventures have become ubiquitous train reading in Italy. Set in Sicily, with a cast of regulars—from the inspector and his long-distance lover Livia to Zito the local Commie TV newsman and Gegè, a drug-dealing pimp and reliable informant—the books read like good TV, replete with bluffs and telling jump cuts. And as in good TV police procedurals, the charismatic detective sniffs out untruths and outwits the criminal in a relatively short time. The Montalbano mysteries offer cose dolci to the world-lit lover hankering for a whodunit.
The first three paperback titles available in English move from the local to the historical to the international: The death of a respected politician found with his pants around his knees churns up unsavory sexual habits and corrupt government officials (The Shape of Water); a 50-year-old rape and double murder time-trips Montalbano back to the U.S. occupation of the island during World War II (The Terra-Cotta Dog); and in his latest, The Snack Thief, a stabbing in an elevator intersects, via a Tunisian prostitute, with the assassination of a man on a fishing trawler. (A fourth title, Voice of the Violin, gets a paperback release this summer.) True to their Sicilian roots, the books enjoin the reader to appreciate good food (never put Parmesan cheese on pasta with clam sauce), sneer at Italy’s notorious bureaucratic inefficiency (“Send a fax . . . ? Here we still use tom-toms and smoke signals!”), and shun arrogance (the head of the post office is “notorious for being a presumptuous imbecile”).
Montalbano is an “incurable cop,” hardworking, charming, and crude. At 44, he’s faithful to his lover, but hardly has time for her, or the bevy of flirts he turns away. Fascinated by ruins, delighted by dramatic irony, and scornful of cops who take notes, Montalbano has what Hammett called the “instinct of the hunt.” As a good Sicilian, however, he knows the body must be well-fed for the mind to puzzle through life’s mysteries (fish “were crying out their joy . . . at having been cooked the way God had meant them to be”).
In The Snack Thief, a recently orphaned boy who steals his schoolmates’ lunches to survive provides the living link to two murders and prompts Montalbano to consider growing up. His tender side shows through: Even as he refuses to face his father’s impending death, he considers marriage and adoption. Andrea Camilleri’s gift (along with writing enjoyable farce) is to join the domestic elements with intrigue in the right proportions, juxtaposing the way delicately fried mullets taste with the way one man faces down violence and love.