Italian author Andrea Camilleri followed an unlikely path to mystery fiction success. This is a genre full of writers who break into the business in their twenties, thirties, or forties and churn out novels annually until retirement; Camilleri, by contrast, was well into his sixties when he reached mainstream recognition. In his younger years, Camilleri's passion was for performance art. He taught drama, became a theater director, and produced television shows. When he finally sat down at his writer's desk in the 1970s, he didn't meet with much success. His 1978 debut novel Il Corso Delle Cose (The Way Things Go) remains obscure even in Italy and has yet to be translated into English.
Success was something that Camilleri always seemed willing to live without, however. A man of art and politics, he was an active member of the Italian Communist Party and remained vocally left-wing all of his life—something that's hard to miss in his books, though readers of just about every political persuasion enjoy Camilleri's work. Camilleri's then-obscure career hopped back and forth between the mystery and historical fiction genres.
Despite his identification with the masses, Camilleri ended up saddled with fortune and fame late in life. The change came about thanks to a widely known character he created: Detective Inspector Salvo Montalbano, a policeman in Camilleri's native Sicily. Montalbano is expertly characterized and instantly likeable. A middle-aged everyman, Montalbano loves fine food and has a complicated relationship with the law. He's not eager to advance his career, and he's willing to bend the rules if it helps things work out more smoothly. Although Montalbano’s opinions on lawbreaking may be malleable, his positions on ethics and justice are not.
Camilleri originally intended to write a book or two starring Montalbano and then move on, but the success of the character kept the creator coming back. The result is a superb series written by an author that knows every trick, trope, and formula but has so much more at his disposal. Camilleri's books are brilliant not because they shatter any formulas but because, in following those formulas, Camilleri finds the time and space to make his work mean something. His ideas about politics, justice, and morality are seamlessly woven into his stories, and they fit perfectly within the finely tuned mechanisms of Camilleri's twists-and-turns storytelling.
Camilleri passed away in 2019, but his 2017 novel La rete di protezione has only just become available to English-speaking readers. The English translation of The Safety Net arrived in Spring 2020, and its release provides the perfect opportunity to revisit Camilleri's great back catalog. Here are a few of our favorites Andrea Camilleri books.
Inspector Montalbano Mystery #1
The Shape of Water
Back in 1994, few could have imagined that La forma dell'acqua would kick off one of the biggest international mystery series in recent memory. Looking back, it's a bit easier to see how Camilleri became one of mystery fiction's most popular writers. Translated into English in 2002, The Shape of Water shows some of the hallmarks of Camilleri's later hits, including a focus on political intrigue and government corruption. Then, of course, there's the main character: The middle-aged policeman with a passion for food and a mind for crime, Detective Inspector Salvo Montalbano.
Inspector Montalbano Mystery #2
The Terra-Cotta Dog
Detective Inspector Salvo Montalbano first appeared in The Shape of Water in 1994, but it was 1996's Il cane di terracotta (The Terra-Cotta Dog) that cemented him as one of mystery fiction's most beloved characters. Though Camilleri originally planned on moving on to other characters, critics adored this book, and fans tore it from bookstore shelves. The verdict was in, and Camilleri gave the people what they wanted: more Montalbano.
In The Terra-Cotta Dog, Montalbano is investigating a Mafia crime when he stumbles across a strange cave. Inside are the decades-old bodies of two lovers along with symbolic artifacts, the titular terra-cotta dog among them. It's a bizarre find with echoes of Christian mythology, and it's the perfect puzzle to build a Montalbano mystery around.
Inspector Montalbano Mystery #3
The Snack Thief
Released the same year as The Terracotta Dog, Camilleri’s The Snack Thief begins Montalbano's series in earnest. Following his big hit, Camilleri worked fast and dished out his second novel of the year. But there's no shortage here of quality, nor of important points being made.
In a series full of important subjects and unflinching honesty, The Snack Thief fits right in. Camilleri's beloved detective inspector dives into a case of government corruption and emerges in the midst of an international conspiracy. Murder is all around, and not everyone who ought to be helping is doing their part.
Inspector Montalbano Mystery #7
Rounding the Mark
Mystery novels can sometimes feel like they exist in a parallel universe. Some have unrealistic police procedures, others have convenient clues, and still others manage to direct their mysteries away from all things topical, contemporary, or controversial. Not so with Camilleri's novels, which tend to strike a realist tone and address contemporary political and ethical problems. In Rounding the Mark, Montalbano tracks a case into the dangerous world of drug traffickers and, worse yet, human traffickers.
Rounding the Mark is a dark novel. It's not afraid to examine Montalbano's despair and anger at the crimes he comes face-to-face with and the institutions that fail to protect the innocent. This bold and serious novel looks unblinkingly at the real problems plaguing Camilleri's native Italy and at those Camilleri considers responsible—including Italian businessman and political leader Silvio Berlusconi, for whom the left-wing Camilleri has nothing but disdain.
Inspector Montalbano Mystery #13
The Potter's Field
In Vigàta, there is potter's clay in the soil. In Camilleri’s The Potter’s Field, there’s a dead man in the soil, too. And not just any dead man: this particular fellow had Mafia connections back when he was in the land of the living. It's just the sort of case for Detective Inspector Montalbano.
Twists and turns abound in this one, but knowing that they're coming won't make them any less stunning. With more than a dozen Montalbano novels under his belt, Camilleri is at the top of his game in The Potter's Field. Camilleri blends mystery, Mafia lore, and biblical undertones together to form one of the most finely crafted novels of his long career.
The Revolution of the Moon
The massive popularity of Detective Inspector Salvo Montalbano changed the course of his creator's career. A few books just wouldn't do; creating plots for Montalbano became Camilleri's full-time job. But Camilleri was never going to stick to just one type of novel featuring just one character. He put the mystery genre to work towards loftier goals, turning books into statements on government corruption and the evils of the world. And he kept working at other, non-Montalbano writing, too, particularly historical fiction.
The Revolution of the Moon is a historical fiction novel set in Sicily in 1677. Sicily was ruled by Spain at this point in history, and Camilleri's book tells the story of Doña Eleonora, the widow of Sicily's Spanish viceroy. Left in charge by her husband, Eleanora is plagued by sexist insubordination. This is a tale of political intrigue with a star player as clever as her brilliant creator.
The Sacco Gang
Originally published in 2013 and translated into English the year before its author's passing, The Sacco Gang is a worthy coda to a brilliant career. Like The Revolution of the Moon, this novel finds Camilleri putting aside his massively popular Montalbano character and focusing instead on a work of historical fiction. The setting is again the author's native Sicily.
In 1920, fascism and the Mafia are both on the rise in Italy, and the socialist Sacco brothers are on bad terms with both. Made the target of a protection racket, the Saccos' father heads to the police and sets off a firestorm. Corrupt cops and fascist leaders take up the side of the Mafia and declare that the Saccos are the ones living outside of the law. Camilleri spins a vivid story of newly minted outlaws with justice on their side and the local powers arrayed against them.
Sources: The Guardian
Featured photo: Alchetron