In a new series of blogs, new allonymbooks crime author EJ Knight discusses some favourite crime writers.
Like Spenser’s Boston and Falco’s Rome, Montalbano’s Sicily is as rich a character as Montalbano himself in Andrea Camilleri’s novels. Indeed, Sicily is not just the setting for the books, its social, historical and geographical complexities are often themes in the crimes Montalbano investigates. Although Montalbano frequently rails against the iniquities of Italian life, bureaucracy, the media, the government and the legal system, the villagey Vigàta is a place where life goes on largely as it always has, its immoral undercurrents affected more by the prevailing winds of local corruption and social secrecy than by globalisation and international crime.
That is not to say that the crimes of Vigàta and Montelusa are not relevant to the non-Sicilian reader. The outside world infuses these towns with terrorism (The Snack Thief) and sex trafficking (The Shape of Water), but it is the communities’ ability to withstand the march of change and commit the most domestic of crimes which make these stories remarkable in many ways as well as thoroughly recognisable to the reader. They have a timeless quality, as though Vigàta is somehow slightly outside time, beyond the real world, that when foreigners arrive they wash up rather unexpectedly. There is something Christie-esque about Camilleri’s focus on the small dramas of family life and how they drive the individual to desperation and revenge. Montalbano resembles Poirot at times in his rituals and his personal quirks, and he has something of Miss Marple’s fusion of moral rectitude and relaxed worldliness: nothing seems to shock him but there is much that offends – neglect, abandonment, the corruption of the young and the innocent.
Although the novels focus on Montalbano, his colleagues make the novels dynamic and stop them being purely the stories of a strong, individual cop-chararacter. Indeed, Montalbano is possibly not quite remarkable enough to carry the books on his own for he is not brutal or selfish or self-destructive enough to ape that vein of the detective genre. He is flawed, but rationally so – he likes his independence, his food, his books and his swimming, but he doesn’t have Morse’s eccentricities, nor does he enforce his solitude to the reckless endangerment of the case. He likes the puzzle but he likes his life, and this balance is essential, perhaps best demonstrated by his inability to give himself up entirely to Livia because the case is always as important. In a sense this is where Camilleri is at his most brilliant, for he has diffused the quirks of one man among the many: Mimi Augello is the lothario, Fazio the detail-obsessive, Catarella the fool, Tomasseo and Pasquano the extremes of law enforcement eccentricity. Camilleri is also an incredibly funny writer: satirical, comedic, farcical, all the shades of humour. And the character of Catarella, while comic, does not have a monopoly for Montalbano is able to laugh at himself and others, perpetuating the novels’ incisive edge.
Not content with near-perfect dramatisations of the books, RAI Italian television has collaborated with Camilleri to expand on a novella to introduce Il giovane Montalbano, the young Montalbano in his first years in Vigàta. In addition to brilliant casting in the regression of the familiar characters to their younger versions, we are discovering the younger Montalbano as he discovers himself, exploring his authority, his approach to understanding people and solving the crime, the way he builds his relationships. It would be delightful to read more stories from this era, for the television adaptations lack the internalising monologues where we hear Montalbano’s voice more distinctly.
Nordic crime fiction has been fashionable for some years, its cutting edge darkness sweeping through other crime writing, but Camilleri’s smaller scale Italian crimes, while no less savage, speak to both a cultural optimism and a microcosm where values are preserved. He is no knight in shining armour, but he is a hero in the defence of a way of life.
Andrea Camilleri’s books are available from all major retailers in paper and e-book form in excellent English translations by Stephen Sartarelli, as well as the original Italian. DVDs have also been released of the television adaptations of the Montalbano and young Montalbano series.