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Lawrence Russell

an investigation into:

Andrea Camilleri: Death in Sicily: the first three novels in the Inspector Montalbano series

The Shape of Water | The Terracotta Dog | The Snack Thief

and others, including The Voice of the Violin, Journey to Tindari, The Fourth Secret, Rounding the Mark, The Track of Sand

§ Sicily -- you know it, the island where Michael Corleone hid out in The Godfather, got married, got widowed in short order. Mafia clan politics. Always a hint of violence, must be the volcano, Mount Etna popping off, has been for generations, centuries... is erupting right now, as a matter of fact. Dry and arid some places, lush and fertile, others. Wine as smooth and crazy as sunstroke, and some of the best ancient ruins in the Hellenist-Roman world -- shoreline temples, mountain altars, sundials, amphitheatres and necropoli.

So, imagine Sicily, the mythical town of Vigàta facing North Africa... this is the beat of Inspector Montalbano, the alter-ego of Andrea Camilleri, former TV producer and author of some of the most popular Italian novels of his generation. Two point five million copies sold in Italy, one and a half million elsewhere they're saying, his writing is addictive, the Euros are buying his stuff by the kilo.

Camilleri, born and reared in Sicily, theatre director, Professor, didn't start writing detective fiction until he was in his late sixties, and he's in his nineties now, still writing and smoking like a train, smart as a whip.

Hmm... Camilleri. Could be a front name for a team of writers in an unlisted warehouse in Palermo.

But then, perhaps you remember that the great Leonardo Sciascia used this narrative for some pretty sophisticated stories set in Sicily, and Andrea Camilleri, it seems, was a friend and admirer of Sciascia's. And like Sciascia and a few other writers, Camilleri uses his hero -- Inspector Salvo Montalbano -- as a stage mask for his own social/political/cultural opinions, i.e. Profs and critics who deride mystery fiction; non-smoker zealots; migrant concentration camps; Balkan psycho psychiatrists; American cultural imperialism (fads)... and so on. Yes, because he lives alone and drinks at night, Montalbano talks back to his TV a lot.

Camilleri: Death in Sicily

Montalbano embraces life & death just the way he sexualizes food, drinks to depression when depression drinks him, is kind and considerate to women, children and animals... yet is a brute to men, especially bureaucrats, finds his criminals by intuition rather than forensics, yet more often than not leaves his gun behind when he needs it most. He takes risks, although they are reasoned risks. His cunning is sedulous, although seldom viewed as such. He seems easy going (although his testiness increases as Camilleri advances him through middle age in the later novels). There's a subtle balance between Eros and Death, as if enjoying a good meal or an exalted landscape view or taking issue with some politician on the TV is just as important as the case on hand, despite the jump cuts between dead bodies and the search for clues. You become involved in Montalbano's world completely, as the action moves with the naive fluidity of an adventure yarn rather than the grim lockstep of the basic police detective procedural. With Salvo Montalbano, Chief Inspector at the Vigàta police station, you get the inner and outer man with all his foibles and warts, not some gray state apostle in a bureaucratic suit more worried about political expediency than justice.

In the first Montalbano novel, The Shape of Water (1993), an engineer called Luparello is found dead in a green BMW by two garbage collectors at the Pasture, a beach rendezvous for exotic prostitutes.

(the Pasture: 'a veritable UN of cock, ass and cunt') ('bitchin' blondes from Eastern Europe, Bulgarian transvestites, ebony Nigerian nymphs, Brazilian viados, Moroccans queens, and so on in procession...)

A short time later Rizzo, a lawyer, is shot by Luparello's nephew, who was also his uncle's gay lover. Suspicion initially falls on Ingrid, the promiscuous wife of another engineer. Ingrid is a Swedish fantasy figure just like the Anita Eckberg character ("Sylvia") in Fellini's La Dolce Vita, yet no tease, more than willing to accommodate her admirers if they have anything new to add to the eternal sexual narrative. Her father-in-law continually assaults her like a dog driven mad by the scent of blood, and Montalbano has to dream up a blackmail scheme in order to make the old man desist. This tabloid imagery is part of the absurdism that runs through Montalbano's world as a rationalized normality. It's wrong, but hey, stiff Luigis have no conscience.

All this might seem sensational, yet somehow it comes across as Sicilian normal, perhaps because Montalbano himself seems so normal, so clever yet such a chump, so polite yet coarse, so diplomatic yet brutal. He lives alone in a small beach house in Miranella, not far from his police station in Vigàta (modelled on Porto Empedecolo, Camilleri's home town, now known as Porto Empedocolo-Vigàta, as fiction is better than reality or....), has a long distance lover called Livia way up in Genoa in northern Italy; they do weekends at his place, sometimes hers, talk about marriage but somehow never pull it off, as both are career slaves. Maybe it's the idea of loneliness as the elegant elixir of youth... or simply the risk factor inherent in Montalbano's job as a detective. Now and then he gets shot. Now and then he goes crazy from the danger. He drinks whiskey, has insomnia, sits on the veranda, drinks, telephones Livia at weird hours, receives anonymous calls before dawn, anonymous letters at work, talks to his TV, smokes, drinks, rewards himself with fancy food in bistros, bars and trattorias, or in the apartments of lonely widows, witnesses or the friends of victims. Yet Montalbano is incorruptible... unless going soft on women is corruption, and playing Robin Hood for the poor, the weak and the damned... playing an ad hoc ombudsman who is quite willing to stage entrapments if these dangerous plays fulfill his sense of moral justice. Soft vigilantism is sometimes part of his repertoire, yet you would never call him a vigilante any more than you would call a priest a cop who saves a battered wife from a homicidal husband.

Camilleri: The Terracota Dog

In the second Montalbano novel, The Terra-cotta Dog (1996), some characters from The Shape of Water carry through, most notably Ingrid, the Swedish bombshell rally car driver who becomes the detective's undercover agent, perhaps in more ways than one. The Terra-cotta Dog is a very clever work, aspires to be literature rather than crime fiction doggerel, indeed, is literature and not just because Camilleri drops some heavy names into his hero's downtime reading list. It's a story-within-a-story, where one crime becomes displaced by another, the present by the past, the news by history.

Tano the Greek, an old Mafioso enforcer, wants to turn himself in, arranges to discuss it with Montalbano in a remote mountain shack. The request comes through Gège, Montalbano's childhood friend, now a successful pimp and outdoor brothel owner of the Pasture, a secluded beach-side spot. Tano and Montalbano share a bottle of excellent red wine; T's AK-47 rests against the rough cot. He's tired of the game, the new game, the young capos with their cell phones, computers and fast cars, their indifference to the old Mafia code, their casual nihilism. Why did he choose Montalbano for his arrest? Because the Inspector is a man of respect and understands that the 'Greek' (a euphemism) has to have respect, can't just turn himself in at the station, so his capture has to be "staged"... and he's certain that Montalbano will will go along with his unusual request. The Inspector does... gets some unwelcome TV coverage for this great coup, and the promise of a promotion to Assistant Commissioner, a prospect that sends him into a cold sweat, as if promotion puts him one step closer to the grave rather than less work and more money.

In what seems to be his favoured narrative setup, Camilleri has Montalbano face two crimes, seemingly unrelated. But what's interesting here is that Tano the Greek's "retirement" and eventual assassination leads to the uncovering of a another crime, which redirects Montalbano into a story-within-a-story, an excursion into the Sicilian WW 2 past and a fascinating -- if somewhat long -- metaphysical examination of history. Now you understand the significance of the title. Now you understand the subtle complexity of Italy's relationship to North Africa, one that reaches back through the rise and fall of civilizations all the way to the Pharaohs and beyond. Now you understand the sublime symbolism of the terracotta dog and the dead lovers in the cave... aesthetically, the narrative is like a canvas that has been used twice, the current painting concealing an earlier, more stunning work... and so now, O reader of hackneyed police procedurals, you learn what the great Argentine writer Borges meant when he said mystery writers do themselves a disservice by solving mystery absolutely.

 Camilleri: The Age of Doubt

 Camilleri: The Age of Doubt

'Montalbano explained to a polite young woman that he was utterly hopeless when it came to anything electronic. Turning on a television, yes, flipping the channels, turning it off, no problem. As for the rest, utter darkness.'

So Montalbano is caught between the old and the new, the right and the left, just like Italy. He's hard to pin down; his best friend in the media is a communist and his best friend from his old schooldays is a free enterprize pimp. When it comes to Montalbano, his politics, his beliefs, are like the argument of the beard: when is he just unshaven, or when does he have a beard?

In The Potter's Field (2008) he tries to question a potential witness, an old woman who hates authority, especially the present Italian government, loudly declares herself to be a monarchist, and refuses to answer any questions until Montalbano slyly confesses that he too "is a monarchist". Absurdly, the woman believes him, becomes a fount of information. Once again, comic relief on the trail of Death... and all else is relative.

'A chill ran down the Inspector's spine. If Don Balduccio asked after somebody's health, in ninety percent of the cases that person, a few days later, would be climbing the hill to Vigàta cemetery in a hearse' (Excursion to Tindari. 2005)

'He had the voice of a dubber of porn flicks, one of those warm, deep voices that are used to whisper filthy things into women's ears' (The Track of Sand, 2010)

'pity is dead'

In the third novel of the series, The Snack Thief (1996), Camilleri once again presents two seemingly unrelated crimes, but which eventually mesh as if Fate is indeed determined by some cosmic master plan. One, a Tunisian called Ahemed Moussa gets shot dead on board a Sicilian fishing boat when challenged by a Tunisian patrol boat in international waters, and two, a business man gets knifed in the elevator of an apartment building somewhere in Vigàta.

The first incident appears to be a coastguard affair but when Montalbano discovers the murdered businessman had a Tunisian mistress... well, it's amazing how messy some lives can be in sleepy old Vigàta. Yet here Camilleri delivers a message about the tragedy of the African migration into Europe via the Italian islands of Lampedusa and Sicily. And while he does present a liberal-humanist view of the migration situation, there's nothing naive about the politics of it all, or an easy condemnation. His hero Montalbano is sensitive to a point, but not to the point where he can no longer do his job -- this comes later in the series, way down the line, and even then, it's Nature, not politics, that grinds him towards despair.

Some might think The Snack Thief is a bit too Catholic and sentimental in its desire to show Montalbano as a man of Christian charity but robbed of a normal family life due to the exigencies of his job. As he and Livia have left it late in life to a), get married, b), have children, their impulsive dalliance with adoption as a solution to the impasse in their relationship helps salve any guilt or anxiety while at the same time shows the reader that these are "good people" even if their career-driven modernity has a faint odor of selfishness. In Montalbano's case, his secular humanism is clearly a Catholic refit, although his sympathy for "the snack thief" -- the Tunisian orphan boy -- might be a recognition of his own orphan childhood.

So it goes. Like a priest who cannot marry because he is already married to the Church, Montalbano is fully committed to the Police. It's a familiar condition for the cop in the contemporary crime novel; Simenon's Inspector Maigret might be able to have a wife and a bourgeois hearth, but for nearly everyone else such comforts are more or less impossible. Arrivederci, the Golden Age... those days are gone, signor. Mankell's Wallander is a mess, widowed and alienated, and Leighton Gage's Delegado Silva is living with an alcoholic, is already a widower without the freedom. Others come to mind: the famous Inspector Morse of Oxford, Investigator Arkady Renko of the Moscow Crime Bureau, Harry Bosch of the L.A.P.D. Homicide Squad... the list is seemingly endless. And they all have the same illness, the same disconnect. The solution of the crime brings no closure, except in the bureaucrat's case book.

As a character, Salvo Montalbano is an Everyman. He's probably how a lot of Italian males like to see themselves, fair but tough, a loner in a rotten world which has just enough beauty and humanity in the fabric to allow him to keep going, follow the moral compass even if the compass sometimes has to be jigged. Indeed, Montalbano appeals to all of us as he's funny and beastly, strong and (once in a while) weak, jealous and liberal, totally human without succumbing to greed, vanity, cruelty or the false persona of the double-man. Yet he lies, evades, masticates... as he is essentially an oral man. Cigarettes, alcohol, food... food and more food... and beauty, always beauty. Women play him, as they can read him like a mother. He's everyone's son, and everyone's father, simply because he has no children, is available when the call of duty requires.

6 Characters in Search of a Killer

The Vigàta police team is small, the number uncertain, although the main players appear to be six: Montalbano (Chief Inspector), Mimi Augello (Assistant Inspector and modest lothario), Fazio (fastidious Sergeant), Catarella (Falstaffian desk constable), Tortorella (patrolman), X (changeable, novel to novel... Galluzzo, Gallo, et. al).

'He (Mimi Augello) looked like an illustration from an nineteenth century acting manual, under the heading "Dismay"'.

Certainly, Camilleri should be able to create a believable cast for Montalbano's team, if not only from reading other police procedurals, but from his own experience as a stage director and TV drama producer. The Vigàta team operates like a theatre ensemble, complete with a hero, a lothario, a buffoon and a couple of spear carriers. The females are always exterious, outside the unit, but come with the plot, like spirits sent to subvert the masculine imperative.

So there's a lot of theatre in the Montalbano series -- stock routines such as running into doors, collisions, prat falls and the like where buffoonery acts as comic relief to the on-going tragedy. The subject may be murder Sicilian style, but withal the world goes on with its absurdities (politics), small pleasures (eating)... work, play and dreaming. In fact, several Montalbano novels start with the detective dreaming just as the dawn comes up, as if the dream sets up the agenda for the day. Again, this is a drama convention, familiar to aficionados of Shakespeare, Strindberg, Ibsen, Hauptmann, Pirandello... and surrealism. In Journey to Tindari (2000), Camilleri has Montalbano shift his contemplation temple from the shadow of a lighthouse to the thicket below an ancient Saracen (olive) tree... the image an acknowledged lift from Pirandello's incomplete novel, The Giants of the Mountain. Here Montalbano retires from work stress, lies below the serpentine branches, sleeps, dreams, awakes to find himself smothered in ants. The mise en scene tilts towards surrealism, as many of Salvador Dali's paintings include figures swarming with ants in a biomorphic translation of life and death.

 Camilleri: Rounding the Mark

 Camilleri: The Track of Sand

 Camilleri: The Fourth Secret

 Camilleri: Journey to Tindari

'He began swimming in slow broad strokes. The sea smelled harsh, stinging his nostrils like champagne and he nearly got drunk on it. Montalbano kept swimming and swung his head finally free of all thought, happy to have turned into a kind of mechanized doll. He was jolted back to human reality when a cramp suddenly bit into his left calf. Cursing the saints he flipped onto his back and did the dead man's float...' (Rounding the Mark, 2003)

The beauty of this passage is in the natural ease of the description, measured as it were against Montalbano's early morning swim. And of course you're being setup for a blindside, the ugly moment when the first body is discovered; here, Montalbano floats into the corpse as if they are players on the mirror-plane of life and death. The scene becomes farce when the detective tows the body ashore and is shot at and then thumped with an iron bar by a couple of indignant seniors on the beach who in their geriatric paranoia have misread the situation. The comic relief immediately supplants the anxiety within the death imagery by introducing the absurd -- a favorite Camilleri method. Within his own drama, the hero might have serious intent, have a good fix on Evil, but what does he do when a buffoon hijacks the script? End up on the TV News, cowering and naked, falsely accused, the laughing stock of jealous colleagues, maybe the community?

deep memory & surrealism

Camilleri writes from deep memory, rather than from the recall of the journalistic method. Deep memory evokes poetry. Documentary is not enough; there has to be a sense of events experienced and fermented for the truth to be felt in the bones. Camilleri knows Sicily, knows the landscape, the people, the codes and the ancestral memory.

Eros versus Thanatos... the old Freudian/mythological dynamic of sex versus death is common play in the Montalbano world, yet in nearly every case this turns out to be a cover for the more venal sins of greed and power. The lust for money and political advantage is behind most violent crime, is the 'salient bias' most transgressors nourish.

The sex crime in The Voice of the Violin (2003/5) is a staged event, an erotic tableaux worthy of a pulp novel dust jacket, pornographic even in death. Beautiful woman, kneeling against the end of the bed, ass raised for the animal penetration... and the eyes of the audience. Even the investigating cops are impressed, inspired instead of chilled by the dead body before them. Yet it's a distraction, a ruse, a bait for a simple conclusion. When Montalbano covers the victim with her robe in a gesture of respect, he's accused of contaminating the crime scene. But of course it turns out that the beautiful Michela didn't die in the cause of necrophilia but rather for some crude scam concerning a rare violin. Like the Terracotta Dog, it's a crime-within-a-crime, and where the solution is not the art, but the clever symbolism that leaves you on the surrealist precipice.

As always with Camilleri, there's a metaphysical edge to the mystery where the supernatural puts reasoned solutions out of reach and intuition is the only way forward. It's a Sicilian thing, something his old friend Leonardo Sciascia used in his poetics. The real purpose of any action remains disguised, even from the actor.

Often, a Montalbano novel starts with the hero dreaming, the incident a metaphysical forecast as much as it is a Freudian refit of his uneasy past. Like Giorgio de Chirico's early paintings there can be more than one vanishing point, as if the world beyond the window belongs to another time and space, a subjunctive longing beyond the waking reality of the indicative. In The Track of Sand (2010), Montalbano dreams of his lover Livia:

'She had Livia's face, but her body was too big, deformed by a pair of buttocks so huge that she had difficulty walking'

Immediately you think of a Picasso woman from his primitivist period, where the psychological imperative of shape takes priority over dimensional realism. They find themselves confronted by a cast-iron gate in a grassy meadow. Montalbano is suddenly wearing riding boots and carrying a whip, and the grotesque slattern who was once Livia exhorts him to "mount me". You are, perhaps, reminded of the Helmut Newton chic porn photo of the saddled woman in his classic study of voyeurism and the bizarre.

And so on. Later that morning, in the real world, Montalbano is visited by a blonde "valkyrie" who reports that her English racing horse has been stolen. And the cast-iron gate from the dream materializes in the vicinity of the Do Luca stables as an uneasy deja vu. So the cause and effect belongs to the supernatural, not the random noise of the street. And Camilleri is quite elastic with the surrealist interchange. Throughout the series, significant plot points occur because of dreams or meditation. Despite his use of "iron-clad police logic" and bourgeois habits, Montalbano is a Sicilian mystic. The material world might be the cause and effect of interstellar gravity misused by villains and nature, yet the subconscious is full of astral metabolism, a motivational force quite different from landslides or billiards. While it would be careless to say that Montalbano has the gift of "the second sight", he becomes more and more a hostage to his dreams as the novels progress.

The use of dream as narrative architecture in The Track of Sand (2010) shifts the story into the psychology of the hero, reassigns the significance of the crime(s). Montalbano's house is trashed, his eyesight fails, and he's seduced by yet another blonde; he feels anxious, vulnerable, even paranoid. There's a lot of internal reflection, so that his condition becomes as important as the crime he is investigating; indeed, the crime becomes mere imagery, a symptom of his decline. He's no longer the micro-manager you see in the early novels, the lovable control freak who gives orders, holds his own counsel, seldom confides. Middle-age crisis? Obviously. Surrealist fever? Obviously. He visits the ancient temples, dithers. His life has become a Freudian trap, fenced by the past, hedged by the future, and the invisible priests of dream.

Thus the surrealist agenda has been set, where the unconscious mind anticipates consciousness, as dream is the incubator.

These novels are like cigarettes or wine -- you finish one, start another without thinking. Obviously their addictive nature is due to the polished creativity of Andrea Camilleri, although for the reader of the English versions, their smooth, minimalist poetics must have gained something from the empathic hand of their main translator, the American poet Stephen Sartarelli. The dialogue is terrific, even when simulating Sicilian dialect or translating metaphors.


Other Montalbano novels:

The Scent of the Night [2005] | The Wings of the Sphinx [2006] | the Paper Moon [2008] | August Heat [2009] | The Dance of the Seagull [2009] | The Age of Doubt [2012] | Blade of Light [2012] | Montalbano's First Case & Other Stories [2016]

MONTALBANO & the DISAPPEARANCE of ANNA: the Inspector investigates the mystery at the heart of Antonioni's L'avventura »»»»

© LR March 2017

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