Inspector Montalbano

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A very strange thing happened to me in August.

As long-time readers of Taking The Short View will know, I have a particular liking for BBC4’s Saturday evening subtitled Euro-noir slot. Ever since the breakthrough appearance of the original Swedish Wallander shows in 2008, through the highs of Forbrydelsen, The Bridge and Borgen and on to the more varied and far-flung fare such as Mammon, Salamander, Corden and even the distinctly non-subtitled, non-Euro The Code I’ve been a fan of them all. With one singular exception to the rule in the form of the Italian entry to the line-up, Inspector Montalbano, which I’ve never been able to get into and enjoy. Try as I might, I’ve never got further in than ten minutes before throwing my hands up in surrender and finding something else to do with my Saturday nights instead.

And I really have tried. Albert Einstein once said that a definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, and that must mean I’ve proven myself pretty crazy since that’s exactly what I did: every time BBC4 would start a new run of Montalbano stories I’d sit down and give it another try, and sure enough I had the same failure to launch on each occasion. It simply wasn’t going to happen, and yet still I stubbornly persisted in at least giving it a try – because, y’know, sometimes mad things do happen, right? So it came to pass that I sat down for my traditional ‘give it another go’ when BBC4 reran the six episodes of the Montalbano prequel miniseries in August, fully expecting the same crash and burn to ensue as usual.

And then the strange thing happened…

Young Montalbano S1 (BBC4/DVD)

y-montalbano-1It was 15 minutes into watching the first episode of Young Montalbano that I was startled to realise that I hadn’t made any move to grab the remote control and switch channels. That turned to genuine surprise when I found I was still watching after 30 minutes, and when the end credits rolled after two hours my sense of shock was so profound that I ended up posting about it on social media.

A friend replied back with words to the effect of “Yes, but did you like it?” which rather stopped me in my tracks. Clearly I hadn’t disliked it – I’d got to the end without once feeling like stopping or turning over – but I’d been so overcome with the sense of achievement of actually sticking with it that I now wasn’t sure how I actually felt about the programme itself. Clearly the only way to proceed and clear up the matters arising from this unexpected situation would be to try the second episode in the series and find out whether it had been a one-off – a freakish exception to the rule – and how I actually felt about it.

At the end of the second two-hour instalment, I could confirm that the first hadn’t been a one-off. And I could reply, hand-on-heart, that yes, I had genuinely enjoyed it, and quite a lot at that. A third episode soon followed – same results – and after that I became mildly obsessed. Unable to wait for BBC4’s weekly transmission schedule I ended up buying the DVD and devouring the remaining episodes in a single week. Montalbano had gone from being completely off the menu to suddenly being my favourite new dish of the day.

How to account for this sudden transformation? I honestly have no idea. Something simply clicked within me. It reminds me of those stereogram pictures that were all the rage in the 1990s that looked like a blizzard of multi-coloured dots until you learned the trick of how to defocus your eyes and then the three-dimensional image hidden within leapt out at you clear as day. It was something like that with me and Montalbano, going from “I don’t get it” to “Ooooh, that’s good” in the blink of an eye.

To me, the series had originally come over as terribly amateurish: flat production values, wildly variable acting with some terrible unsubtle and oversized performances and painfully embarrassing caricatures. The stories appeared shambolic and meandering, and the tone was all over the place. It would swing from farce to romance, then from prat-fall comedy to cliffhanger thriller, often all in the same scene. There’s one character in it – police switchboard operator Catarella, played by Fabrizio Pizzuto – who is for all the world a version of the police constable Crabtree from the 1980s BBC sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo who constantly stole the show by mangling every word he uttered. That’s fine for a sitcom, but how could it fit into an ostensibly ‘straight’ drama? Then there’s the character of Montalbano’s deputy Mimì Augello (Alessio Vassallo) who verges on a crass lampoon of foreigners’ view of Italians as womanising Lotharios more obsessed with their hair and clothes and next conquest than anything else in life. There’s one scene in Young Montalbano where Augello is meant to be interrogating a suspect who is a beautiful young woman: he stammers his way through, unable to raise his eyes from her breasts. Not that Montalbano himself is all that more commendable in the scene as he writhes and squirms in his chair in evident discomfort, looking anywhere else but the suspect. It’s a strictly-for-laughs scene, although not quite as sexist or misogynist as it might have been given that the series is set some 25 years in the past and therefore as much a critique of how attitudes have changed (or not) in the intervening years, but it’s still very odd indeed to modern English eyes.

Overall, the Italian culture makes for a very different style of storytelling, a big contrast with the conventions of the US or UK (or even the Nordic and northern European countries come to that.) However as another friend of mine pointed out it’s not unlike the old style of English plays from Elizabethan times written by the likes of Shakespeare who would be similarly free-flowing in how they would put their works together to appeal to all demographics throughout while making the narrative effective and vivid at the time. In hindsight I think this wild variability might be the reason why I’ve never been a huge fan of Shakespeare either, outside of specific more disciplined works like Hamlet and Macbeth which have a modern sensibility that works better for me.

However at some point I started to see Young Montalbano as it was meant to be seen and not how I wanted it to be. I could finally appreciate the different approach to the police procedural format which twisted many threads minor and major into one whole that pleasingly meant that you could never be quite sure what was trivial and what was going to prove to be important. A story might start with a brutal murder and apparently innocuous bizarre anecdote of someone stealing a fish from a restaurant and shooting it in the head, but as the episode progresses it’s the murder that’s quickly resolved and the nominal side distraction that becomes huge and nightmarish.

Starting my viewing with Young Montalbano also meant I got a great introduction to the characters that will come to dominate the series – better than the beginnings of the main series and the books in many ways where the supporting characters outside the (Chief) Inspector himself were somewhat vague and only developed over many years of subsequent outings. By comparison, the prequel series is able to draw upon all these future stories to present a better defined picture of them all at the very start, with the actors able to study the novels and the existing TV episodes to get a immediate clear sense of what they are aiming for.

Did it hurt that I knew nothing about the later-set stories coming in? Not at all. In some ways it even helped because I didn’t know until the end just how significant each character would prove to be – whether they would play a long-running important role or whether they would be quickly out of the picture. Things were able to evolve naturally and without expectation and as a result truly caught me out on several occasions. Not that the writers of the prequel were averse to playing with the expectations of the long running fans either: upon arrival at his new posting in the fictional Sicilian coastal town of Vigata, the young Montalbano (Michele Riondino) immediately meets an officer called Fazio who will be his loyal right hand man, just like in the books. This Fazio (Andrea Tidona) behaves just like his literary counterpart but is much older than readers will have been expecting; it’s only gradually that we realise the significance of his constant mentions of his son Giuseppe (Beniamino Marcone) who is just graduating as a detective inspector. It’s a lovely thread through the series that not only gives us two delightful characters but also adds a lot more depth to the young Fazio who is often just an eager plot-enabler in the modern stories.

Suffice to say, I was utterly charmed by the entire series. The spectacular Sicilian locations had always been something that I could love and admire about the show even when I had a pathological disliking to the rest of it, and perhaps these partially explain why I kept coming back for a taste every now and then despite everything. The background music by Andrea Guerra on the other hand had been somewhat off-putting for me initially – basically, someone plucking at a guitar with little reference to anything happening on the screen – but by the end of the six episodes I had fallen in love with the soundtrack almost as thoroughly as I had the rest of the show.

The only problem with having made the breakthrough with Young Montalbano was the realisation that there were only six episodes of it to savour, compared with 26 of the ‘grown-up’ version. That meant that the big question now was whether my new-found love of the prequel could possibly transfer across to the main show, or whether reality would be restored and I’d stall at the transition point.

More of that in a moment, but first some notes on the six Young Montalbano episodes:

1. The First Case
A promotion brings young Detective Salvo Montalbano from a small mountain village to take over as Chief Inspector of the police department in the coastal town of Vigata where he grew up. After clearing up one last case from his former posting regarding a murder and a stolen set of WW2 soldier’s boots, he witnesses a case of road rage involving a local mafioso’s hot-headed son and then looks into a murder that’s been pinned on a young woman who may be smarter and angrier – with good reason – than anyone initially realises.

It’s an odd jumble of small cases to start with but it all sets the template well for the rest of the season – gentle, amiable and affable, surprisingly likeable once you get the hang of it. It only took me seven years…

2. New Year’s Eve
On New Years Eve, a bullet shot from outside a hotel kills a guest. Montalbano learns that rooms were switched just before the shooting, which changes the direction of the investigation. Added to this, Montalbano is also persuaded to look into a 50-year-old murder case while having problems in his own long-standing, long-distance relationship to deal with.

Initially the death appears to be a simple accident but it soon picks up momentum and becomes Montalbano’s biggest case to date with a real sense of importance. The ‘look-back-in-history’ is also surprisingly compelling, and while Montalbano solves both cases he does so by losing something of personal importance to him along the way. An episode which builds upon, expands and deepens the promise of the pilot.

3. Back to Basics
Montalbano feels threatened by the arrival of his new deputy Mimi Augello and they soon clash over the affections of Livia Burlando, a witness in the case of a child’s brief disappearance that leads them into Mafia territory. Montalbano also investigates the curious theft of bottle tops from an obsessive-compulsive hoarder, and faces the prospect of losing the assistance of his oldest and best colleague.

The individual cases are no bigger than the first episode, but out of this the show spins a truly enchanting slice-of-life tale, partly due to the introduction of two important new characters that adds a sense of direction and growth to the otherwise ambling nature. All in all, a rather delightful episode.

4. Mortally Wounded
While Augello looks into a poison pen campaign against a local politician’s wife, Montalbano is focussed on the killing of a hated local loan shark who has been shot in his own bed resulting in no shortage of suspects. Montalbano also has to let one of his closest associates go, while through Livia we find out more about his troubled relationship with his father.

The opening poisoning pen case is quickly dealt with and largely present to give further airings for Augello’s womanising, but otherwise this instalment is unusually focussed on just one case and is the stronger for it. It’s the insights into Montalbano’s character (his problems in forming a relationship that isn’t one-sided, and his more serious childhood issues with his father) that are most fascinating. Some real laugh-out-loud moments here but also some truly sad ones; and as is the case with this show, often in the same scene.

5. The Third Secret
Montalbano investigates a string of suspicious deaths at local building sites after receiving anonymous letters forewarning the police of the crimes, but runs into territorial issues with the Carabinieri and a showdown with local mafiosi. What looks to be a minor matter of someone tampering with the wedding notices at the local church turns out to be something far more serious and potentially deadly.

This surprisingly ups the action stakes, with an atmospherically staged shootout at the beginning and end followed by Montalbano literally leaping into the path of danger to save a young bride. But the mix remains as eclectic as ever with the comedy antics of Catarella very much to the fore and Montalbano mixing his heroics with a prat fall in a wet building site and making an idiot of himself bursting in on an entirely innocent Augello and Livia. Most of all, the turf war between himself and the local Carabinieri chief doesn’t become the face-off we all expect, and instead young Salvo finds a kindred spirit albeit one with a sad secret that means this won’t be the start of a beautiful friendship after all.

6. Seven Mondays
A vicious stabbing leaves a wealthy property owner dead in his home and suspicion immediately falls on his dissolute son Filippo. Almost unnoticed at the time are a series of animal murders – beginning with a fish and then a chicken that Montalbano initially sees as a tasty excuse to concoct a recipe, but soon the case haunts him as he fears something far more terrible is coming – even causing him to bail on his long-planned holiday with Livia.

This contains the most obvious example of a cut-and-shunt between two short stories having almost nothing in common, which inevitably compromises the final instalment. For once it’s not the ‘trivial’ case that is the padding/comedy distraction but the more obvious brutal stabbing murder, which after a period of showing Montalbano’s instincts being right about the prime suspect and his doggedness of not letting go suddenly resolves itself very easily – just in time for the minor case to come centre stage. After that it’s odd to see Young Montalbano suddenly become a full serial killer thriller (even if all the early victims are farm animals albeit increasing in size; thank goodness there are no elephants around Vigata, quips Augello) battling a relgious fanatic dropping obscure clues with his corpses. The Livia story feels like a recap of earlier episodes, but there is a nice sense of resolution to the series-spanning arc of Montalbano’s relationship with his father.

Inspector Montalbano S1E1 “The Snack Thief” (BBC4/DVD)

montalbano-2Given that Young Montalbano was made in 2012 and the first episode of the original Inspector Montalbano series aired in 1999, watching them in reverse (that is to say, story-chronological) order inevitably means that the transition is far from seamless and yet it’s also surprisingly smooth. It takes a few minutes to accept different people sitting in the same offices and homes but there’s a commendable sense of continuity all the same.

It’s hard to fix exactly how long the gap is supposed to be between the prequel and the main series but I’m guessing that it’s about eight years, with on-screen dates in Young Montalbano making it 1991. However the script for the first episode of Inspector Montalbano states that Augello has been in post at Vigata for four years and that Salvo has been in a relationship with Livia for eight, but that contradicts the prequel which suggests that they happened the other way around and at about the same time.

“The Snack Thief” is the first TV episode actually based on one of Andrea Camilleri’s novels – all the Young Montalbano episodes were adapted from short stories, novellas and new material mixed up to form a feature-length running time. You can immediately feel the difference, because while on the surface it might seem to be the same mix of large and small cases meandering alongside each other mixed up with touches of home life and Sicilian cuisine, there’s a much better sense of depth that comes from Camilleri’s careful integration of all the different threads into one meticulously crafted, coherent and intelligent whole. “The Snack Thief” starts with reports of a fisherman being shot dead by Tunisian coastguards and then leaps straight into the investigation of a man’s body found stabbed in the lift of a residential apartment building. His cleaner has gone missing too. Oh, and a young boy has been bullying school children in the area for their break time snacks – but does such a trifle really warrant an all-night stake-out by Montalbano’s entire squad?

What’s striking is that when it comes to the details of the case itself, the television adaptation is scrupulously faithful to the book right down to small touches such as Montalbano hurling a heavy inkwell at Catarella for the latest botched telephone message he’s passed on. There’s a little thinning out of some of the initial door-to-door work, and it bypasses some series continuity business since the first TV episode is based on the third book of the series, but otherwise this has the same fidelity to the novel that Hollywood films of the 30s and 40s used to have, before it became de rigueur for any film to bear only titular reference to the work that inspired it and that any other connections between them should be scrupulously ripped out by the hapless screenwriter if he was to earn his paycheque at the end of the day.

The major attraction of watching “The Snack Thief” is being able to see just how well (or not) they cast the prequel. It’s a mixed bag to be honest: Catarella, now played here by Angelo Russo, is very much the same character although if you’re to nitpick then you’d have to say that he looks a lot younger here than his ‘younger self’ does in the prequel, whereas by contrast Montalbano’s journalist friend Nicolò Zito has seemingly aged 30 years between his portrayals by Carmelo Galati and Roberto Nobile. Meanwhile the regular series Fazio (Peppino Mazzotta) is so utterly like a more mature version of the actor they subsequently found to play the part in the prequel that it’s almost to the point of being genuinely unnerving. It’s harder to tell about Augello (Cesare Bocci) since his role in this first episode is quite small compared with the greater prominence the character had in Young Montalbano.

The odd thing is that there appears little attempt to make the two lead actors remotely similar. Luca Zingaretti is shorter, stockier and with much less hair than the tall, lean and hirsute Michele Riondino, and nor do the two even appear to synchronise their portrayals to any significant degree. It’s almost as though the producers just decided to cast the best actor available to lead the production in each case, and then simply let them get on with it independently to the best of their abilities. Which actually is a rather commendable approach and one that I think is well rewarded in having two charismatic performances at the heart of each series, however different they might be. It’s much better than having tepid carbon copies of one another any day of the week, and adds new life and energy to the endeavour while ultimately not being nearly as off-putting or jarring as you might fear – once you simply accept it, at least.

The big question however is whether I ended up transferring my new-found warm, fuzzy feelings toward Young Montalbano over to the main series enough to make me want to continue with the grand experiment, or whether my Montalbano obsession ended right here and now. This time the matter was never in doubt: it took me all of ten minutes to successfully and completely transfer my allegiance; which leaves the embarrassing matter of why it took me to long. But, moving on …

The Shape of Water, by Andrea Camilleri

montalbano-3I’ve already tipped my hand by referring to how faithful the TV adaptation of “The Snack Thief” was to the book, which implicitly reveals that my new love of the television production has propelled me into reading Camilleri’s books as well. I started with the first in the series, “The Shape of Water”, which features an investigation into the discovery of a local politician’s body in a notorious red light district in Vigata. All Montalbano has to do is sign it off as death by natural causes and he’s under pressure from all around him to do just that; but there’s a much darker game being played under the surface.

What’s really surprising about Salvo Montalbano as the central character in a long-running series is that he doesn’t appear to have any particular identifying quirks in the way that, say, Columbo or Morse or Wallander do. He’s dogged and stubbornly determined of course, and with a strong moral sense of right and wrong without which he could hardly be the main protagonist in a police procedural. He’s not depressive, although he can get into a foul mood just as easily as the rest of us can; he’s commitment-phobic, although he’s still managed to sustain a loving relationship with Livia for almost a decade; he’s not an alcoholic, although he certainly does love his food; and he’s no maverick recklessly defying his superiors, although he knows how to get around them when he needs to. In other words, he’s identifiably real and human just like the rest of us.

The stories in which he appears are a mixed and eclectic bunch but always fascinating and compelling. Camilleri takes us from unlikely starting points to unexpected destinations and always makes the progression feel natural and unforced. There’s not too much in the way of thrills, spills and action but even so the pace never flags: indeed the novels can be rather short and are a very brisk read, which is perhaps why they’ve become such a hit amongst those wanting a book to take away on their summer holiday to read by the pool.

It has to be said that if you’re looking for something with long descriptions of Sicily then this is not the series for you. Camilleri takes the setting somewhat for granted and refers to it only occasionally, finding other more subtle shorthand ways of evoking the location. Similarly, while the book is full of references to some quite exotic Sicilian and Italian cuisine these are usually throwaway mentions to the names of dishes and it’s left to the footnotes to give any specifics about what they’re made from. A cookbook this isn’t – although inevitably there are now places on the Internet where you can find the recipes for the meals mentioned in the books.

As with all books originally written in another language, it’s hard to tell whether the style of the novels is down to Camilleri himself, or is a quirk of how Italian (and Sicilian) writing works by comparison with English, or alternatively whether it’s style partially provided by the translator. Stephen Sartarelli has done all the translation work for the Montalbano series so far which means that the tone of voice remains consistent across all the entries, which is much appreciated. Since Camilleri makes references to Sicilian customs and Italian history and culture in general without expanding upon then in the main text and explaining them to those of us overseas without the same familiarity, it falls to Sartarelli to add much-appreciated footnotes explaining these things in greater detail than could be done in the main text without ruining Camilleri’s narrative flow.

Overall the two make for an excellent team. The novels have a simplicity and plainness of prose that reminds me of Agatha Christie at her best, while the use of a crime mystery to create a larger, richer tapestry of life and setting puts me in mind of Dorothy L Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels. But there’s no cosy ‘golden age’ feel to these stories, which are identifiably modern (or at least, of the time in which they are written – “The Shape of Water” came out in 1994 and the absence of mobile phones is particularly striking) meaning that there are red light districts, corruption, Mafia influence and the intelligence services targeting terrorists. Not the sort of mise-en-scène you’d find in St Mary’s Mead.

Perhaps the most surprising thing in all of this is that I’ve developed a penchant for buying the books as paperbacks rather than going for the (cheaper) ebooks. Picador have made a lovely job with the printing and binding which makes them a sensory pleasure to hold and read, and in particular the cover illustrations by Jeff Fisher are all so beautifully evocative and vibrant that they’ve almost become the third hand of the author after Camilleri and Sartarelli.

As well as “The Shape of Water” I’ve now also read the second in the series, “The Terracota Dog”, in which the discovery of a Mafia arms cache in a hidden cave also unearths two 50-year-old corpses the story behind which Montalbano is determined to get to the bottom of even after being gunned down in an ambush. And of course there is also “The Snack Thief”, which proved just as delightful a read as the other two books despite the fact that I’d just watched the faithful TV version a couple of weeks earlier.

In all, then, this post isn’t so much a carefully considered review of Inspector Montalbano in all his media forms as it is the gushing of a newly converted out-and-out fan, for which I make no apologies. Admittedly I might still be slightly ‘high’ at my breakthrough: it took a long time, but it was certainly worth it in the end. I highly commend the same journey of discovery to anyone who hasn’t yet taken it.

And to take issue with Einstein: if insanity really is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then maybe our lives would be a little richer and deeper if they had a little more craziness in them, because sometimes not giving up pays off in spades.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2

18 of the Inspector Montalbano stories by Andrea Camilleri have been translated into English by Stephen Sartarelli and are available from all good bookshops and as ebooks. The TV episodes are available in six DVD collections and also as a complete set, with Young Montalbano available separately. Italian state broadcaster RAI is currently filming new episodes of both Inspector Montalbano and the prequel series for airing in Italy in 2015 and in the UK in 2016.

5 thoughts on “Inspector Montalbano

    Franco said:
    June 15, 2017 at 8:24 pm

    Great Blog on Montalbano! It helps to be Italian or in my case to have a 100% Italian mother and live with her family – who, by the way, could populate the cast and crew of Inspector Montalbano. Oh the real life characters and stories I could tell. I’m glad you had a change of heart. I fled to Marina di Ragusa Sicily near Montalbano’s fictional home just to get away from the last few months of the US election. I had a wonderful time while in Sicily. It’s always good to get in touch with one’s inner Italian! Again, good job!

      Andrew Lewin responded:
      June 15, 2017 at 8:36 pm

      Thanks so much!

      Yes, I have an Italian-speaking friend who always tells me that the television programme’s English subtitles are hopeless and that they miss a lot of the subtleties of the dialects. Fortunately the books are very well translated and cover a lot of this ground which makes up for a lot of it and transfers across to when I’m watching the television show, too.

      Not the same as being fluent oneself, of course, but the best I’m ever going to get since I lack your advantages! Anyway, I’m definitely a Montalbano convert these days and that’s what’s important.

    Mike said:
    September 4, 2017 at 4:12 pm

    I have just spent the summer binge watching the entire Inspector Montalbano series. I too fell in love with it. I thought it was goofy at first and agree with what you said about the clownish Caterella and ladies man Mimi.
    Now nearing the most recent season, (10), I realized I laugh at Caterella, and find him sweet. It also took me around 4-5 episodes to realize how the story telling unfolds. I really did not understand why they had so many “loose” threads and strange little vignettes going on. Then I finally got it. We never know which story weaves into the big story and often turns out to be the “big” story. This has turned out to be my favorite part of how they tell the stories. As a police procedure junkie, I love how this show is not predicable and I do not know where it will end from the first 15 minutes. Once I finish these last two episodes, it is on to Young Montalbano!
    Thanks for taking the time to write this great review.

    yourbusinessgenie said:
    May 16, 2020 at 5:11 pm

    Interesting review…. you have not recognised that the characterisation of Catarella is pure Commedia De’ll Arte – and is intended to be so. Luca, the lead actor, speaks eloquently about the characters in a youtube movie about the making of the series. As someone who wrote a dissertation comparing German Singspiel with Commedia De’ll Arte, I got it straight away – and fell in love with it. For me the patchwork of characters placed in such a uniquely presented (often empty) landscape is what makes the series wonderful. It’s like watching a show put on in a home theatre, where you are allowed to fill in all the spaces with the many suggestions made in the open plot.
    I’ll take this anyday over the all-too-predictable and formulaic USA creations we (sadly) get dished up on TV and in the flicks. It has become so boring that in some cases I know the end is going to be inside the first 15 minutes – and I’ve left cinemas that early for that reason. No danger of this with Montalbano. Glued to the screen most of the time. I’m even toying with the idea of writing a sequel myself, just for the hell of it. I’ve been a lifelong writer, so why not?

      Andrew Lewin responded:
      May 16, 2020 at 5:21 pm

      Many thanks for your erudite and informed comments. I hope I did make the point that it was precisely the cultural difference of using broad comedy shoulder to shoulder with dark drama that was my early problem getting into the show, and that once this “clicked” with me I was an “instant” fan after years of trying.

      I agree with your comments about US drama being so formulaic. Sometimes it’s easy to know whodunnit just from the casting. That has started to pervade UK dramas too, and even some of the European/Nordic output which is such a shame. We need the variety – vive la difference!

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