If you like your detectives irascible, principled and loyal with an insatiable apetite for the truth, amongst other things, then Sicilian Salvatore Montalbano is your man.
Italians know Commissario (Inspector) Montalbano as the head of the fictional Vigàta police precinct. He intelligently navigates the worlds of the Mafiosi, petty criminals and corrupt politicians who stifle island life. But whilst he may mix with murky Mafia dons to solve an investigation there is no mistaking Montalbano’s high principles and utter disdain for that life. This is a man for whom justice is central, whether achieved via legal means or other avenues. Indeed writer Andrea Camilleri makes a point of confronting the flaws of his homeland weaving uncompromising contemporary economic and political story lines into an ancient Sicilian backdrop.
Camilleri writes in a mixture of dialect and Italian (helpfully translated into English by Stephen Sartarelli over the last few years) drawing the reader into the lives of Salvo, his deputy, best pal and womaniser Mimì and his trusty sidekick Fazio. So whilst Mimì flirts his way through investigations into underworld deaths, Fazio compiles information on the suspects like a human encyclopaedia. Meanwhile Montalbano cogitates silently for hours over platefuls of fresh caught seafood at his favourite trattoria, meditates under an olive tree on the south coast shore or swims in the azure waters off his beachfront villa.
Infusing his characters with humour, sarcasm and love Camilleri brings each to life as they work, play and, occasionally, socialise together throughout the series. Focus often shifts between the men as they tackle corruption, shoot outs and the eternal wall of silence but ultimately the main character that comes through loud and clear is the glorious Sicily herself. Her undulating, fecund landscapes, her rococo architecture, her centuries old traditions and not least her dying dialect which Camilleri is trying hard to maintain. The books are set on the south coast and Camilleri bases his fictional world of Vigàta on his hometown of Porto Empedocle, whilst the administration headquarters of Montelusa are based on Agrigento. Camilleri is a one-man Sicilian tourist board!
And although the text poetically conjurs up the sunshine isle you don’t have to use your imagination to create the scenes of crime and culture as the series has been televised by Rai 1 in Italy since 1999. Lately Montalbano has also crossed Europe to reach British shores hosted and subtitled by BBC4. Scripted by Camilleri himself the eponymous detective is brought to life by renowned roman actor Luca Zingaretti who captures Montalbano’s self confidence in his favourite phrase – Montalbano sono – I am Montalbano, like a Sicilian Spartacus!! Zingaretti is aided and abetted by blue eyed Cesare Bocci as lothario Mimî and Calabrian Peppino Mazzotta as Fazio. Add in linguistically challenged slapstick station controller Caterella played by Sicilian Angelo Russo and you have a team made in detective heaven!
But this isn’t a totally macho male world. Montalbano shares his life with long distance, long-suffering, saintly partner Livia (played by German actress Katharina Bohm who, those of you of a certain age will know, used to play Clara in 1970’s children’s drama Heidi!) Montalbano shares his bed, thoughts and heart with her, but never quite brings himself to commit, even after nearly a decade together. And while Livia travels for work, Swedish racing driver Ingrid Sostrum checks his eye isn’t wandering too far, flirting outrageously with him as an occasional test but knowing full well that they’ll only ever be friends (although Montalbano is no saint on that front!) And finally Adelina, Montalbano’s housekeeper and cook, satisfies his insatiable appetite for rustic Sicilian home cooking filling his oven daily with her crostini, aubergine caponata and pasta col ragu alla sicilliana (Sicilian sauce). In fact Montalbano is so passionate about food that he could almost be said to love it more than women. Almost!
Ultimately, Salvo Montalbano is an engaging and endearing hero. Honest, when it serves him, passionate about justice, women and food, decent to a fault and fiercely protective of his team he runs a tight ship with a fair hand. He may do things his own way, at times breaking into houses instead of waiting for warrants or helping to “find” evidence. And he’s certainly considered a maverick by his superiors but this never detracts from his love of solving riddles and bringing the guilty to justice, one way or the other. Montalbano encapsulates Sicilian passions and astute detective work without taking himself too seriously. The books and TV series continue to be hugely popular with the latest new episodes on Rai taking 40% of the Italian TV audience this Spring. So if you like your detectives to be macho, moral and intelligent with the occasional moody Italian streak get yourself down to the bookstore and dive into the the first adventure in “The Shape of Water”.