Sunday, June 20, 2010
With the releases of The Paper Moon, August Heat and The Track of Sand coming up in August, September and October, respectively, I will have recorded twelve of Andrea Camilleri's charming Sicilian detective tales. Each is set in the fictional towns of Vigata and Montelusa, and each features the inimitable Inspector Salvo Montalbano, a moody, cynical middle-aged cop who, through a combination of plodding legwork, fumbling intuition and Javert-like persistence, always gets his man (or woman, as the case may be.)
The Voice of the Violin, the fourth in the series, won an Audie Award last year in the mystery category, which seems to have given the audio versions a long-overdue (in my opinion, anyway) bump. In Italy they are the basis for an enormously popular television series featuring actor Luca Zingaretti. Foreigners can sign up for an "Inspector Montalbano tour" that visits the actual locales depicted in the book (Porto Empedocle and Girgenti). Camilleri, a respected poet and novelist, freely admits that Montalbano has developed a life of his own, over which he no longer has much control, to the detriment of anything else he might try to write.
The English translations by Stephen Sartarelli are crisp and colorful, preserving as much as possible the comic energy, satirical edge and blunt violence that drive the originals. Montalbano comes across as a wonderfully complex character--alternately sensitive, bullying, manipulative and confused. Outwardly he rules his fiefdom with an iron fist, tempered by a malicious sense of humor and a fondness for practical jokes. Inwardly he quails at personal relationships and struggles with the eternally demoralizing nature of his job. He's not above acting as judge and jury, bringing a Sicilian sense of justice to cases that not only should never have happened, but perhaps should never be solved, given the moral complexities involved. He maintains an uneasy truce with the local Mafia, who, interestingly, rarely figure directly in the crimes at hand but instead operate at some level beyond Montalbano's (or anyone else's) grasp.
Then, of course, there's his unquenchable appetite. Unlike American cops and their donuts, Montalbano possesses a finicky palate which only the most exquisitely prepared dishes will satisfy. No Camilleri novel is complete without a dozen or more mouth-watering descriptions of the simple but elegant fare served up at a series of off-the-beaten-path, mom-and-pop-style trattorias--or prepared by Montalbano's doughty housekeeper and left in the fridge for his eventual enjoyment at the end of another maddening day.
The supporting cast are memorable as well, consisting of crafty stool-pigeons, loquacious witnesses, exasperating superiors, and endearing, alluring females (who almost always get the better of the men.) Montalbano's staff frequently lapse into a level of bumbling that brings the Keystone Cops to mind--Mimi, his womanizing assistant, disappears for days at a time; Gallo, who serves as Montalbano's chauffer, is a frightful driver who inevitably involves them in a wreck; Detective Fazio's obsession with administrative detail drives his boss to distraction; and the linguistically-challenged switchboard operator, Catarella, threatens to reduce each case to chaos with his garbled messages and crossed wires--but through native wit and loyalty to their beloved chief, they always manage to come through.
Some of the plots are stronger than others--The Snack Thief and The Terra Cotta Dog are particularly gratifying in this respect. Sometimes they are topical in nature (like the human trafficking in The Wings of the Sphinx), and occasionally they are simple frames for advancing the arc of the main character. Camilleri always manages to slip in some pungent political commentary (he's clearly no fan of Italy's current Prime Minister). Sicily's chronic woes permeate every book, and touches of discomfiting despair creep in whenever Montalbano rages inwardly against the hopelessness of politics and "the system." If you're looking for strenuous action, look elsewhere. But if you enjoy foreign police procedurals that are long on atmosphere, character and congenial wit, then these are for you.