I have just finished reading one of the best crime drama series, with more than a hint of humour, I have ever read and I have taken Holmes, Poirot, Morse and more into account.
In this case, however, I was introduced to the sleuth and his sidekicks via the medium of television. Having read crime mystery books since I was about 10 years old, often long before they were portrayed, I found that in half of the books I read I had pinpointed the guilty person half-way through the book.
Not so with Agatha Christie’s stories on first reading and not so with the series of books I have just finished reading – the Italian-based police crime series about Inspector Montalbano by Andrea Camilleri, translated into English by Stephen Sartarelli.
The TV series was in Italian with English subtitles but after a while the mind took in the translations in the subtitles without conscious effort and allowed the viewer to concentrate on the plot and the action.
I say plot but the television tales appeared to jump from one part of the story to another with nothing to explain the changes that came into the storyline. It also seemed as though it was being played for laughs.
A regular character in all the books is a uniformed member of Montalbano’s team who really appeared to have been included for laughs. He was telephonist and desk officer and used to burst into the inspector’s office with a slamming of doors against walls as he often fell flat on his face.
In the early days just watching the tv series I gained the impression that Alberto Rosso, who played officer Catarella, must have been a well-known Italian comic or comic actor who played the role as one of the characters he might have used in stage shows etc. Similar in a way to George Formby or Norman Wisdom who always seemed to be the same character no matter the plot.
My assumption could not have been further from the truth.
After we had seen a few of the Montalbano series I decided I would like to read the books to compare them to the onscreen portrayals.
We were still under the Covid lockdown which prevented me going to a bookshop so I went online and actually found a seven-volume set of Montalbano books at a cheaper price than buying them individually so, in for a penny in for a pound, I placed my order.
The Shape of Water, first in the Montalbano series, was a real eye-opener.
Apart from the inspector in the book having a good head of hair, on the television the character could have been played by Yul Brynner or Telly Savalas, he was as bald as a billiard ball, he was almost the same as his portrayal in the book except that here his character was fleshed out as we enter his mind as he tries to solve his cases; or we join him at his favourite restaurant where there were great varieties of seafood for him to enjoy before he walked down to the harbour and stared out to sea as he considered how to find the latest killer.
This is why the tv series seemed to jump about so much. It would be almost impossible to portray these mind conversations where Montalbano often played two sides of himself, or the dreams he has which are so vivid that initially you think the inspector is actually involved in these actions in rfeal life.
The other eye-opener was the first introduction to Catarella as he bursts through the doors to Montalbano’s office, smashing one of them with a thunderous bang against the wall as he almost falls flat on his face in front of the inspector’s desk.
Rather than the actor putting his own portrayal to the character he is actually portraying the character directly as the author had written it.
In fact his speech reflects the character himself as he faithfully informs Montalbano that “the Commissioner is poissonally on the line and wants to talk to you poissonally in poisson.”
He is what we might call a country bumpkin but Camilleri refers to as a provincial. He comes from a village in the mountains and his version of Italian is a dialect which the inspector often finds difficult to understand.
Montalbano appears to have taken a shine to Catarella and puts up with his strange ways because the officer is a good man with a good heart.
A few books into the series the police station in Vigata, where Montalbano is based, has a computer installed and, despite having doubts, the inspector decides to send Catarella on the computer induction course and discovers that, although the man is clearly a couple of shiny buttons short of a uniform jacket, he has a natural affinity with computers and becomes an invaluable member of Montalbano’s team.
As well as sundry police officers and detectives Montalbano’s real team boils down to himself, his deputy Augello, who is a womaniser and remains so after getting married and becoming a father, a young detective called Fazio, with a penchant for noting down far more information than his boss can handle, and, of course, the faithful Catarella.
In recent times I have read nearly all of the two separate series of Anne Cleeves’ two amazingly different police detectives, Vera and Jimmy Perez , as well as the many crime novels of Val MacDermid and can honestly say thast when it comes to characterization and plot Camilleri is very much their equal and at times can leave them both behind.
I had bought the rest of the 30 books in the series and I did find one thing strange about the final Montalbano book, Riccardino, which I completed today.
About halfway through Camilleri suddenly introduces a new character, the Author, who we discover has been putting Montalbano’s stories into book form which has led to a tv series about – you guessed it – Inspector Montalbano.
This character calls Montalbano at odd points in the investigation and suggests a different line the inspector could take, or suggests he has been in error in suspecting one person rather than the other.
In fact in a fax to Montalbano the Author actually outlines the way he feels the story should end and the inspector realises that he and his “biographer” are no longer singing from the same hymn sheet and it is time for him to leave the scene.
I do seriously suggest you introduce yourself to Inspector Salvatore Montalbano. It doesn’t really matter whether you read the books first or watch the tv series, they complement each other.