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Montalbano's First Case & Other Stories (2016)

Andrea Camilleri

trans. by Stephen Sartarelli

§ Is this just a collection of odds and ends to fill in some gaps in the Montalbano legend, or is it an author's summing up?

To some extent the First Case collection is a metafiction, a disguised essay about Camilleri and his writing. As before he uses his hero Montalbano to applaud various writers or take shots at others (usually critics), although in 'Montalbano Says No' he breaks the 'fourth wall' or the 'alienation' zone between the author and his audience by having Montalbano address the author, Camilleri, to complain about the hideous crime he has been stuck with (the abduction, rape, mutilation and cannibalizing of an unidentified female in a lonely house on a lonely hill on a lonely night), ergo, no gratuitous slashers for this detective, please.

Why would a smooth operator like Andrea Camilleri do this? It's a bit of a post-modern fad, isn't it, to have characters yapping back at the writer, a sort of 'poet's choice' to appear avant-garde when in fact the story has floundered because you have neither a story to tell nor the technique to tell it. No, this isn't it; Camilleri answers Montalbano thus:

"Some people write that I am just a feel-good writer who tells only sugary, cosy stories; others say that the success I've enjoyed thanks to you hasn't been good for me and that I've become repetitive and care only about royalties... They claim I'm a facile writer...." (461)

Camilleri: Montalbano's First Case

So Camilleri is upping the ante on his protagonist (and the reader), who wants nothing to do with this sort of evil. It's a playful rebuff to his critics while at the same time underscoring that their choice of depravity and desire for sadism and deep violence isn't his and that "Montalbano Says No". In actual fact, Camilleri's crime fiction is brutal, but it's the joie de vivre style that offsets the bad vibes by balancing comedy against tragedy, and his hero's affirmation of life over 'man's inhumanity to man'. There's enough realism in the Montalbano death scenes to make them credible, even if the TV pathologists out there demand more.

'Montalbano Says No' is judiciously placed near the end of this collection, and while you wouldn't want this sort of game narrative to predominate, its inclusion at this point adds an intellectual dimension that addresses, perhaps, a criticism that has some validity. Camilleri is clearly a confident writer, relaxed enough to be metaphysical if metaphysics are required, despite the appalling global demand for voyeurism and photo-neurotic realism. He comes out of an Italian tradition that includes Curzio Malaparte and Luigi Pirandello, writers who certainly had plenty of contact with 'realism' but who chose to seek poetry in the absurdity of life and the inherent contradiction of being and nothingness.

It's possible that the 'feel-good' critics base their objection on the TV series rather than an actual reading of the Montalbano novels. Even if you've seen only one or two episodes, you can't miss the burlesque production style, that much of the action has been "sent up" -- to use theatre parlance -- and scenes edited to remove coarseness and "excessive violence". While very nice to look at, the dramatization is Prime Time, staged to avoid offending or upsetting sensitive men, women, children and animals. But there's no reason why a filmed drama of the Montalbano series couldn't be more real, accentuate documentary naturalism more in line with, say, the Henning Mankell Swedish crime series 'Wallander' or the Michael Connelly Los Angeles crime series 'Bosch'. Eliminate the buffoon Catarella from the ensemble and maybe the Montalbano dramas aren't so funny.

It must be admitted that some of the stories in this collection aren't 'short stories' but novellas or discarded chapters or sub-plots from the Montalbano oeuvre. These are episodic rather than axiomatic, and rely heavily on a previous knowledge by the reader of the characters. It could be argued that the first long story -- 'Montalbano's First Case' -- sets up the naive reader for all else that follows, yet there's a sense of stasis to some of these tales as the supporting cast doesn't evolve. Mimi is Mimi, Fazio is Fazio, and Catarella is just a clown with one routine. The best stories -- or the ones that come closest to the compressed narrative ideal of the short story are 'Fellow Traveller', 'Pessoa Maintains', and 'Judicial Review'.

The ending of 'Judicial Review' is probably too enigmatic for most addicts of crime fiction, is too similar to the judge's dramatic suicide in a burning house earlier in the story. But, like a surrealist painting, enigma can be its strength, forcing you back into the imagery. Judge Attard, the man in black who walks the beach in front of Montalbano's house, is like a metaphysical figure from a Giorgio de Chirico painting, real enough, but unconstrained by time and space. With his house jammed full of transcripts from a lifetime of trials and judgements, his situation has the grim, Kafkaesque absurdity of a nightmare. Yes, you might think of Pirandello or Borges, where symbolism explains everything and nothing.

'Pessoa Maintains' references a Spanish writer called Fernando Pessoa (1888--1935). While Pessoa wrote under many aliases (or "heteronyms" as he called them), dabbled in the occult (he corresponded with Aleister Crowley) and subscribed to Futurism, it's his mysticism and logic that appeal to Camilleri/Montalbano, i.e., just because the body is lying in the street doesn't mean the man fell down there. While this might seem obvious, it does make a nice lead into the logic of this story about a peasant poet (oral) called Antonio Firetto and his mafioso son. Montalbano is called to investigate the death of a man in a rural house. The man is sitting at the kitchen table, shot through the back of the head, execution style... and turns out to be Firetto's son Giacomo, a mafia hitman who has been on the run for a few years. It doesn't take the clairvoyant Montalbano long to figure out who killed Giacomo; it's how he settles the matter that provides the interest.

According to his preface, Camilleri wrote 'Fellow Traveller' for a Crime Writer's "Noir in festival" at Courmayeur (north-west Italy) in 1997 at the behest of the organizers... and wouldn't you know it, a French writer who was also asked to write a story, wrote one "essentially the same: both unfolded inside a railway sleeper cabin with two beds, one occupied by a police inspector, the other by a killer." Camilleri goes on to say: "Those present at the conference didn't want to believe that it was a coincidence; they were convinced that the French writer and I had worked it out together. But in fact we had never met or spoken before then." Interesting... but does it make any difference to you or I now? We think of Borges, of course, just allow this inside-outside metaphysical possibility, admit that the universe is full of doppelgängers and destinal conjunctions. Who, at least once in a lifetime, has not confronted the face of Janus? Again, it's the simplicity of the plot, the sense of unity and its inverted logic that makes the story interesting.

Others have strong, pattern narratives. In 'The Cat and the Goldfinch' old women are shot and robbed by a bandit on a motor cycle, his handler a cunning lawyer who has only one real target in mind as part of his greedy masterplan. You might think of Aesop's Fables here, although this cat-bird motif is introduced a bit late in the action with no foreshadowing; Montalbano outwits the lawyer, of course, in classic Camilleri fashion:

'Giuseppe Joppolo, the handsome lawyer, lost his cool. "You don't have a shred of evidence you fucking moron."

But then, of course, since when did Montalbano need evidence?

In 'A Kidnapping' a peasant finds a note inside a bùmmolo (a terracotta cistern for keeping water cool), brings it to Montalbano. Simply, the note is a cry for help from someone unknown. All the peasant can do is tell the detective where and when he acquired the bùmmolo. While Poe's famous story 'Ms. Found in a Bottle' might come to mind, Camilleri's is nowhere as convoluted and picaresque; indeed, it's the very simplicity of its 'follow the thread' plot that gives subtle power and an unexpected resolution.

'Seven Mondays' is another acrostic, with a bizarre chain of animal killings that start with an anonymous man concealed in a cardboard box on a wet chilly night. Perhaps Camilleri was inspired by a children's book showing the evolution of the mammal from the sea to the zoo. After an elephant gets whacked, the next target can only be... well, once again Montalbano saves the day. This simple dialectic demonstrates Camilleri's appeal for the general reader, where the child in the adult can be indulged without ditching intellectual possibility, or the dark side of life trivialized by 'feel-goodism'.

First story, last story:

'Better the Darkness', is an interesting choice to wrap up the collection. It has a very good opening. A priest called Don Luigi Barbera approaches Montalbano, tells him about a disturbing confession by a ninety-something old woman in an old folks home run by nuns, but of course can't tell the Inspector what it is; instead, he drags Montalbano to the old woman's bedside, and Montalbano has the eerie pleasure of hearing one last line before she dies. The woman -- Maria Carmella Spagnolo -- whispers "It wasn't poison" that she gave her friend Cristina. Who, what, when? This new but ancient mystery both attracts and repels Montalbano, perhaps because of his antipathy to the priesthood, especially when Barbera says, "Don't let me carry this burden alone, my son."

Yet... what's past should stay in the past, and what the hell can Montalbano do about it anyway?

But he has a dream about that infamous poisoner, Lucretia Borgia, and Barbera continues to bug him, despite the fact that he balks when Montalbano says he is going to investigate:

"Fifty years after the fact?"

"You know something, Father Barbera? Sometimes I ask myself what proof God had to accuse Cain of murdering Abel. If I could, I swear I'd reopen the case." (p. 509)

Could it be that the cleric is setting the naturally inquisitive Montalbano up? Like a woman flashing her thighs to break a disciplined man?

'The old woman lay sprawled out in an armchair, asleep, warmed by the sun bursting through the windowpanes. Her head was thrown backwards and from her open mouth dripped a shiny string of spittle, as her laboured, raspy breathing broke up moment by moment, only to restart with increased effort. A fly passed undisturbed from one eyelid to the other, which had become so thin that the inspector feared they might cave in under the insect's weight. Then the fly slipped inside one of her transparent nostrils. The skin on her face was yellow and so taut and close to the bone that it looked like a layer of colour painted on a skull.' (p. 546)

Is this a journey he wants to take, a destination he wants to reach?

He has to go all the way back to the early 1950s and to be sure, it's a fascinating tale... although the narrative loses its identity in places -- too short to be a novel, too long to be a short story. Despite Camilleri's easy, oral fluency, some of it is too dense and expositional, especially those passages that paraphrase the trial and conviction of Cristiana for the murder of her husband. Couple this with several pages of filler where Montalbano runs the story past his associates and his lover -- none of which advances the action -- you're left with verbal padding, pure and simple. This isn't a criticism as much as it is an observation of Camilleri's strength and preference as a writer, and the technical difference(s) between the traditional and contemporaneous narrative methods that are usually sweetly balanced in the Montalbano novels, just like a cleanly draughted painting by Carlo Carrà or that master of bad taste masquerading as good taste, Salvador Dali.

But sometimes not, especially in terms of the short story or the 'American' objective style (or 'Protestant style'). Sometimes we get too much speculation, too much background noise. Just cut to the chase, sir, we think. The short fiction narrative wants to be existential, wants the action to reveal all. Despite the modernity of Camilleri's novels, they are old-fashioned in that the hero makes everything happen. This centricity increases as the novels progress and Montalbano ages... although, perhaps, it's the same for all of us.

Camilleri over-writes at times simply because he is fluent... and because the puzzle-narrative encourages interior debate. Although a loner, Montalbano is sometimes an internal motor-mouth. He rattles on, arguing with himself like a Pirandello hysteric. There's a sense of schizophrenia in his character that increases as the novels progress and he ages... although, again, perhaps it's the same for all us.

And the title story of the collection?

'Montalbano's First Case' will appeal to all who find the Montalbano series addictive, as it fills in historical gaps without messing up the embedded fantasy. It won't replace The Shape of Water or The Terracotta Dog as "the beginning of it all" -- the shaping of Salvo Montalbano, genius cop, neurotic loner, social chump, and apprentice mystic -- although it does confirm the obsessions and character types. For example, the damsel in distress is a familiar Camilleri woman, the erotic illiterate who only makes sense speaking body language: Rosanne Marullo, zombie girl on a mission. Or there is the Honourable M.P. Torrisi, mafia lawyer, a snake-tongue just like Guttadauro, the another loquacious mafia lawyer seen in Excursion to Tindari.

As usual, Camilleri's portrait of the Sicilian underclass is photo-electric:

Gerlando Monaco (father of zombie girl):

"Mr. Inspector, try to think. Isn't it enough to have a whore for a daughter without having a bastard for a grandchild?"

And Montalbano's Sir Lancelot complex in a nutshell:

"Now came the question: was it proper for a police inspector to want to free the girl, give her back her gun and tell her to shoot whoever she felt like shooting?"

Montalbano is a liberal arts man with a credential in law, a '60's campus radical who exchanged punches with the current police Commissioner, but now about to be promoted to Chief Inspector. His reading recommendation this time around? 'The Blood of the House of Atreus' by the French author Pierre Magnan. So the blurring of the author and his alter-ego continues.

Livia, "Montalbva's" on and off lover, isn't in the story; it's Mery, a old girlfriend from his university days, who helps him move from his uneasy mountain posting in Mascalippa, "a godforsaken backwater in the Erean Mountains", to beautiful sleepy old Vigàta by the sea. Mery doesn't figure much in the action; she's like a postage stamp, just a way of getting the hero from one place to another and showing that there was life before Livia. Catarella? Not in the story. Sergeant Fazio and Assistant Inspector Mimi Augello are there, take some time to adjust to Montalbano's "off the books" method of investigation, the psychic trickery and ad hoc decisions.

It's a mafioso story and as to be expected, the new cop in town isn't one bit intimidated, and indeed, quickly earns the respect of everyone concerned, including the Cuffaros. Old readers will be satisfied, new ones intrigued, and critics left to marvel at Camilleri's marvellous descriptive ability and psychological understanding of Sicilian society.

But it's in the last story that Camilleri has the last word:

'...why would he want, by investigating, to turn a serial novel into a detective novel? Because that was all he could aspire to: a good mystery -- and never, ever, one of those 'dense, profound' novels that everyone buys and nobody reads even though the reviewers all swear that they've never come across such a book in all their days.'

(p. 512, Better the Darkness)

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© LR June 2017

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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] | Death in Sicily [2016]