Monday, May 13, 2013

They ate in religious silence - enjoying a Camilleri detective novel

I’m trying to take it easy, so I read a mystery, The Potter’s Field (2008) by Andrea Camilleri, the thirteenth novel featuring Inspector Montalbano.  This puts me two novels behind in English, seven (!) in Italian, although my understanding is that Camilleri is planning to wrap up the series.

The last thing I want to do is review book #13 of 21.  The first thing I want to do is share the following passage.  Montalbano has been accused by his superior of committing a juvenile prank on a journalist; Montalbano is of course guilty, so he blusters: 

“Ah, so you, Mr. Commissioner, actually believed such a groundless accusation?  Ah, I feel so insulted and humiliated!  You’re accusing me of an act – no, indeed, a crime that, if true, would warrant severe punishment!  As if I were a common idiot or gambler!  That journalist must be possessed to think such a thing!”

End of climax.  The inspector inwardly congratulated himself.  He had managed to utter a statement using only titles of novels by Dostoevsky.  Had the commissioner noticed?  Of course not!  The man was ignorant as a goat.  (66)

An astute reader may see a clue as to why I have read so many books in this series.  This stunt is not exactly typical, but the Montalbano novels are always at least lightly salted with literature.  The detective is even named after a Spanish mystery writer, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán.  Montalbano sometimes reads Montalbán’s books, but not in The Potter’s Field, where he turns to “a book by Andrea Camilleri from a few years back,” not an Inspector Montalbano novel but one that “[takes] off from a passage in a novel by Leonardo Sciascia” (95).

I wonder if it is relevant that Italian literature has an unusual figure, a canonical writer who specialized in mysteries.  How else to deal with his great topic, the Sicilian Mafia?  Camilleri works the same ground, updating Sciascia, so it is no surprise that he frequently acknowledges his predecessor.

Then there is the food, the Sicilian cuisine, eaten with discrimination and gusto (this is another clue - nay, sufficient proof):

Having finished the first cannolo, he took another.

“I see you’ve helped yourself,” said Pasquano, coming in and grabbing one himself.

They ate in religious silence, the corners of their mouths smeared with ricotta cream.  Which, by the rules, must be removed with a slow, circular movement of the tongue.  (44-5)

Meine Frau began reading the Montalbano books in German, several years before they were published in English.  The German editions included recipes!  Which is admittedly a little silly.  Few readers would have access to the proper ingredients.

The mystery in The Potter’s Field is an unusually good one, which is a bonus.

I suppose there are a number of detective series set all over the world as good as Camilleri’s.  Or, depending on my mood, I doubt there are many others as good.  But I do not know either way.

If Wuthering Expectations ever switches to an all-mystery or all-science fiction format, it will be because I have succumbed to the pleasure of being able to read three hundred books a year.

Stephen Sartarelli translated this one, not to mention all of them.  A good gig.


  1. The passage you quote is so good! But damn, reading 13 books in a series seems too tiring, and there's more to come?

    I must say I prefer Sciascia's stand-alone novels, allowing him to move in and out of different themes quickly.

    Between Sciascia, Camilleri, and Lucarelli, Italy has a handful of curious mystery/detective novelists.

  2. To be fair, people might be referencing literature to me in their conversations all the time - it's unlikely I'd notice. Still, I'll pay more attention from now on.

  3. The sad thing is that Camilleri's non-Montalbano stories are not translated into English. His wide range of subject matter, his passion for his characters, Sicilian history and just plain telling a good story and his love of the writer's craft are revealed in everything he writes.

  4. Coincidentally, I am currently reading "The Wings of the Sphinx" by Camilleri. I have only read 5 of his books, I don't think I have seen as many as you mention in either libraries or book shops. Montalbano also makes fun of the commissioner in this novel by sending him a note in poetry playing on the town names of Vigata and Licata. Of course the commissioner does not notice.

  5. I was hoping someone would say something about Camilleri's other books. I hope we do not have to wait for the Montalbano run to be translated to see some of them in English.

    As Ed mentions, some of the jokes, conceits, and devices are long-running. Camilleri is playful and imaginative enough that they do not grow stale. Or sensible enough that he drops the ones that are stale and I subsequently forget about them.

    The mechanics of reading 13 of these - and boy do I agree with Miguel - is that I have been reading the series since 2003, so that is just one a year with an extra slipping in somewhere. Two, three, four hours of reading. I would not want to choke them down. Rohan Maitzen is currently reading all 40 Dick Francis novels for a big overview article - good luck!

    I agree that the few Sciascia books I have read are generally better books, more purely free of the detective novel formulas. Camilleri is expert with them, but they constrain the Montalbano novels.

    And I agree with obooki that it is a dirty trick to judge someone by their ability to catch out-of-context literary references, although if someone is tricking me solely for his own entertainment I guess I should let him have his fun. There is so little joy in the world. Aside from books and food and many other things.

  6. For a glimpse of Camilleri's other work, the Camilleri "from a few years back" referred in the post is the "La scomparsa di Patò" which is available on DVD.

    For readers of Italian, A new Camilleri/Montalbano "Un covo di vipere" will be available May 30th.

    1. Regarding film adaptations, it's interesting that Sciascia also leads the way. Camilleri has TV movies and TV series, but not many big movies for cinema.

      This, by the way, is just me urging everyone to watch those wonderful Sciascia film adaptations, especially the ones starring Gian Maria Volonté.

  7. I really smiled at the statement containing only the titles of Dostoevsky novels. Camilleri looks to be a clever and inventive writer.

  8. That Dostoyevsky passage is such fun. I wonder how well it might work with other authors (i.e. "Rummaging in the old curiosity shop of my mind, I regretfully recall those hard times in that bleak house where I waited for our mutual friend to walk through that little door. It never opened despite my great expectations..." etc. etc.).

    I poked around the Manuel Vázquez Montalbán novels last year as I thought they might make a nice bon voyage gift for a mystery fan who was headed to Barcelona, and they're full of food. So the cannolo passage may also be another tip of the fork to Vázquez Montalbán. Or maybe not - I mean, this is Italy, after all, so how can one not write about the food?

  9. Right, and not just Italy but Sicily. The varieties of preparation of seafood - staggering, staggering. But yes, Montalbano and Montalbán's detective share an appetite.

    Thanks for the Camilleri movie pointer.

    Brian, there are some strong limits to Camilleri's invention, in the series mystery at least. Not too many mystery writers ever really escape them. But given that, yes, Camilleri is on the inventive side.

  10. The pleasure of reading 300 books a year.....that does sound good.

    I've still not read Camilleri. He seems to be popping up quite a bit lately. I should get on the case.

  11. There is no doubt that relative to almost everything else I read, the Montalbano books are easy.

    You should give him a try. Low cost. I wonder how much appeal would be lost on someone with no interest in Sicily. But does that person exist? Sicily is so interesting.