Aged 92, and with more than 30 books to his name, you could call Andrea Camilleri the godfather of Italian crime fiction – though he probably wouldn’t thank you. For three decades his detective, the gastronomically minded Inspector Salvo Montalbano, has been pitched against the Sicilian mafia. In this milieu, godfathers are rarely benign.
The latest in the Montalbano series collects eight early stories, translated into English for the first time (although they have been dramatised for the popular BBC4 series). Set in the fictional town of Vigata, based on the author’s home town of Porto Empedocle on the Strait of Sicily, they range from the slight to the sinister.
The title story delivers heroin smuggling, infidelity and a dead fisherman. In Room Number Two an estate agent – “with a smile that looked somewhere between episcopal and paternal” – finds his negotiating talents utilised by rival gangs. And in The Honest Thief Montalbano teams up with a gentleman burglar to foil a kidnapping. This is rattling and wry detective fiction.
Camilleri’s literary touchstones are Luigi Pirandello and Georges Simenon: deriving a love of the absurd from the former, and humanity from the latter. Like Maigret, Montalbano can look the other way. People don’t get away with murder, but an unsuccessful pot-shot from a cuckolded husband can be overlooked. These are police procedurals in which procedures are seldom followed.
Middle-aged and grumpy, Montalbano remains loyal to his police team – a ragtag crew of womanisers and pedants – whom he regards as a surrogate family. The pleasure in reading Camilleri comes not from solving puzzles but from spending time in this amusing company of misfits. We are privy to their struggles with love, lies and the indignities of ageing.
While there is, of course, a touch of la dolce vita to all this – the inspector lives in a beach house and has a beautiful girlfriend in Genoa – crime is ever present. Violence, however, is seen as one side of the farce of life, to which the flipside is a cream cannoli or a morning swim.
In addition to the Montalbano mysteries, Camilleri also produces stand-alone tales that touch on the bloody footnotes of Sicilian history. His latest nonfiction volume, The Sacco Gang, finds him digging through the cold coals of a real-life case from the early 20th century, a twisted morality tale worthy of the wild west.
In the 1920s the Sacco family ran a successful pistachio farm in the province of Agrigento. When the mafia tried to extort money from them, the family refused to pay. The corrupt police and authorities ignored their plight. By fighting their corner, the Saccos themselves became outlaws.
As Camilleri notes, “the mafia not only kills, but in those cases where the state goes missing, is also able to shape and irreparably upend people’s lives”. He places responsibility on Italy’s politicians – and society at large – to eradicate corruption. In the meantime, he concedes, there are the consolations of the trattoria.