Camilleri’s stories breathe life into Sicily, Italy

The Shape of Water, published in Italy in 1994 and translated into English in 2002, is Andrea Camilleri’s first in a number of Sicilian crime novels featuring the fractious Inspector Salvo Montalbano – an Inspector Jacques Clouseau before the unfortunate dementia.

This isn’t where you have to start. None of Camilleri’s books are sequels, but after you read one Camilleri book you’ll want to read another, and you might as well start at the beginning. These are bedtime stories. They’re sweet, sublimely humorous, soothing and relaxing in the unique way Sicilians relax.

Montalbano alone is such superb characterization – having been faithfully drawn by Camilleri in 19 books – he is lovable. You want to have him to your dinner parties, introduce him to your father but not your mother or sister. He is at once brilliant and charming, spirited and coy and devious. Flirtatious by nature, but easily overstimulated and flustered at the sight of beautiful women, who just happen to cling to him with a variety of intentions.

Montalbano is the mustachioed chief inspector of the police department of the third-tier fictional seaside town of Vigata. If Sicily is like its reputation, and the way Camilleri portrays it, graft is endemic in everyday life for everybody. Being a chief police inspector in Sicily is dicey business. Montalbano knows the rules: throw the little fish back, don’t sweat the small corruptions and revenge killings, get down with the homeys and let the big sharks set their own nets in which to get caught.

We’re first introduced to Salvo Montalbano after the unfortunate and fatal heart attack of a prominent engineer and politico, found in a most undistinguished state in his luxury car at the infamous “pasture,” with his pants down to his ankles. That he should be with a woman other than his wife can be overlooked, but to die in flagrante of such lowly circumstances is scandalous. While “natural causes” is the official and politically correct decree, this is too mortifying not to look further into the messy circumstances. Quite a mystery ensues and is adroitly solved in between meals never missed and fully described.

Camilleri’s latest Montalbano mystery, The Dance of the Seagull, will be released this month. It is rumored that the 85-year-old novelist, poet, playwright and esteemed literary character will write one more book about the adventures of Inspector Salvo Montalbano. The plot of this new nugget is beside the point; Camilleri weaves another precious Sicilian mystery. Montalbano and the precinct asylum are as confounding as usual, and another evening or two is spent luxuriating in a Sicily painted vivid by a blunt No. 2 pencil from behind the ear of a crafty old man. I own all of Camilleri’s books – in paperback, unfortunately how they arrived in translation – and if my house burned, I would save other books first but mourn the loss of Inspector Salvo Montalbano and the poetic writing of Andrea Camilleri and, maybe most of all, the erudite translation of Stephen Sartarelli. Jeff Mannix is a local journalist and author.