Book Review: Matching wits with Mafia and other malefactors

A collection of stories featuring Italian writer Andrea Camilleri\'s Sicilian \'loose cannon\' police detective Montalbano

By Vikas Datta

Title: Montalbano’s First Case and Other Stories – A Personal Anthology; Author: Andrea Camilleri (translated by Stephen Sartarelli); Publisher: Pan Macmillan, UK; Pages: 576; Price: Rs 450

It may be their birthplace, but Sicily has malefactors beyond the the Mafia and some of these can even prove more vicious than the notorious criminal gang. Only a special kind of policeman can function effectively in such a situation and Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano is just the man.

Quite well-known to the English-reading crime aficionado with 20 of his 24 book-length adventures available in the language — without losing their ability to evoke the Sicilian millieu, its mores and especially its cuisine, thanks to translator Sartarelli — and a hit TV series, Chief Inspector Salvo Montalbano appears as a fully-grown character, though some details of his past crop up sporadically.

A collection of stories featuring Italian writer Andrea Camilleri\’s Sicilian \’loose cannon\’ police detective Montalbano

Finally, in this collection of 21 short stories, or rather a novella and 20 stories, personally selected by his creator out of the dozens he has written, we get an account of Montalbano’s early days as a guardian of law and order (and an ensurer of justice, as far as he can be) and how he came to be posted in the (fictional) port town of Vigata.

But Camilleri (born 1925), who, it may be noted, started writing the books when nearly 70 years old, admits “the task of creating a sort of personal anthology from all of the short stories I have written was almost enough to drive me to despair”.

He notes that as the first collection on Montalbano (of the four in all, comprising a total of 59 stories) came after over four of the novels, “the character had therefore already had the time and opportunity to attain a certain completeness”.

Thus, in this new, shorter form, the character appeared as “an already developed, well-defined character, and thus I do not have the option of discarding any stories still weak or uncertain in design”, he says.

And Camilleri, who also goes on to note that the stories offered him a chance to “use the more or less ‘procedural’ circumstances” to “explore characters, situations and settings”, stresses that none of the stories in this present collection should be considered “an ‘elite’ or ‘best of’, because it is quite possible they are not”.

He also warns that the stories here do not represent the chronology of their publication as the novella that gives the collection its name happens to have been written the most recently, and thirdly and finally, he would preferred the anthology have more — a sentiment most readers will sympathise with eagerly.

But even then, there is enough in this selection to interest the reader of atmospheric and evocative crime thrillers, even those who have no previous experience of the Chief Inspector and his equally idiosyncratic subordinates, associates and even superiors.

In these cases, which also offer a vivid portrayal of Sicilian and Italian life and attitudes, we can find Montalbano teasing out the mystery of a woman at the court complex with a pistol in her handbag, finding why the local Mafia clans are breaking the rules as a spate of gangland murders take place, and slowly identifying the chilling conspiracy behind a spate of execution-style killings of pet and farm animals.

He also has to determine whether a strange death of a long-paralysed man is murder or suicide, attempt to solve a retired judge’s strange quandary, get trapped by a priest in investigating a past crime without much details (given the rules of the confessional), and even stand up to his creator for placing him in an unprecedented situation.

There is much more, including how one story featured here amazed a French crime author whom Camilleri was paired up with at a literary meet, when both authors had to read a story specifically written for the event.

However, all those familiar with Montalbano’s world will still have questions like how he met his long-time, long-distance girlfriend Livia and his initial meeting with his subordinates. We can only hope Camilleri will soon put together another collection. (IANS)


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