Inspector Montalbano took a long time to ‘make it’ in Britian. His latest whodunnit sees the Italian maverick fall prey to unfamiliar fears
Sunday Times, 16 December 2012
International success has come late for the Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri. These days, his novels and their television adaptations are familiar to a British audience, but the first English translation appeared only a decade ago. Camilleri started publishing his Inspector Montalbano novels in 1994, but he didn’t win the CWA International Dagger until this summer, when he was 86.
The Age of Doubt, Camilleri’s 14th novel, finds Montalbano in a more introspective mood than usual. Published in Italy four years ago, it is full of rage towards Camilleri’s bête noir, the former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. When Montalbano looks out to sea from his apartment, he thinks about the desperate African immigrants who risk the crossing to Europe in overcrowded boats. They end up in reception centres that the inspector describes savagely as ‘veritable concentration camps’.
Montalbano shares Camilleri’s radical politics, which belong in a tradition of Italian crime fiction whose most famous practitioner was another Sicilian, Leonardo Sciascia. One of the subjects that turns up in both men’s fiction is the mafia, but what troubles Montalbano in The Age of Doubt isn’t organised crime or people trafficking; he’s in the grip of a personal crisis that gives the book its title. The inspector, now in his late fifties, seems to be suffering the pangs of age. He has always been passionate, sardonic and impatient with authority, but his cynicism rarely turns into depression.
So it is surprising to find him tormented by nightmares, including a dream in which he has died and sees his body laid out in his office. In a surreal scene, his long-suffering girlfriend, Livia, tells him she’s too busy to attend his funeral, something Montalbano takes as a warning about his neglect of her. Themes of death and loss pervade the novel, creating an embarrassing situation for the inspector when he invents a sick child to get the local police commissioner’s assistant off his back.
He is honest enough to realise that these intimations of mortality may be behind his infatuation with a beautiful young policewoman he meets in the Harbour Office, during what appears to be a routine investigation. Montalbano expects to meet a man (he’s on the left but he isn’t a feminist), and is knocked sideways by Lieutenant Laura Belladonna, whose surname seems to be a heavy-handed joke on Camilleri’s part. They are thrown together because a yacht has arrived in the harbour, accompanied by a dinghy with a corpse on board. The yacht’s owner, a wealthy widow, claims to know nothing about the dead man, who is so badly beaten that he is unrecognisable. But the case gets more complicated when it transpires that the cause of death was poison and the injuries have been inflicted afterwards to prevent identification.
The Montalbano novels have always contained a seam of comedy, but here the action is so frantic that it comes perilously close to farce. That may be intentional on Camilleri’s part, reflecting Montalbano’s disordered state of mind, but it sits oddly with the novel’s sombre atmosphere. The book is much more about the inspector’s internal world than the murder inquiry, bringing to the fore what has always been Camilleri’s most significant weakness. He has seldom written well about women, reflecting the sexist assumptions of an earlier age. Belladonna is a fantasy figure, falling for the older Montalbano for reasons that are never explained. Clearly, this is a novel that aspires to tragedy. But it ends on a false note more in keeping with 19th-century opera than a 21st-century crime novel.
Mantle £16.99, trans by Stephen Sartarelli