Despite their indifference to genre fiction, American publishers of literary novels have consistently made exceptions for homegrown crime writers. Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James Cain have long been celebrated in collections from the prestigious Library of America as well as reissues from Vintage, arguably the most stylish paperback house in New York; Patricia Highsmith, that once-forgotten mistress of the noir, is finally getting her due, with a steady stream of handsome reissues from Norton and a full-length treatment of her life out now in hardcover. Meanwhile James Ellroy, our living master of the hard-boiled detective story, continues to crank out his novels for Knopf to critical acclaim. So in this globalized culture, it makes perfect sense that publishers big and small would look to crime writers from farther-flung places to diversify their lists. Detective fictions tend to follow a pleasantly familiar form, no matter their country of provenance; suspense, intrigue and murder are universally addictive plot devices.
The right sleuth, killer or thief can also be the perfect guide through an unfamiliar land. As he–and it’s always a he–dodges bullets, searches for clues, hides from the cops (or his wife) and puts the pieces of the crime–as inspector or mastermind–together, we’re treated to foreign delights: narrow, curvy roads that hug the Mediterranean; bustling city streets bearing the names of great leaders instead of numbers; dusty paths that snake between rundown bungalows. Of course, from beneath the seductive exotica, dark underbellies of distant locales show through. Corrupt local officials and sleazy night spots are ubiquitous; backstabbing, lying and cheating, among both friends and lovers, de rigueur.
A new quartet of detective novels from Italian crime writer Andrea Camilleri, published here by Viking and Penguin, takes us to the fictional waterfront town of Vigàta, in Sicily. Camilleri’s protagonist is the overworked, straight-talking, politically radical Inspector Salvo Montalbano, whose passion for solving crimes is equaled only by his love of the perfect pasta al dente and the novels of his namesake, the contemporary Spanish detective writer Manuel Vazquez Montalbán. (Although Montalbán’s works have not found a home in the United States, British publisher Serpent’s Tail has been translating him into English for years.) When Montalbano hits a wall in his sleuthing, he’s known to turn himself around by asking himself what Pepe Carvalho, Montalbán’s famous sleuth, would do.
Like Mike Hammer or Sam Spade, Montalbano is the kind of guy who can’t stay out of trouble. He’s in a long-term, long-distance relationship with the smart and independent Livia, but every time they arrange to see each other, a corpse or two–usually bearing the marks of a deviant tryst–comes between them. (Over the course of the four books, this puts a considerable strain on Salvo and Livia’s relationship.) Montalbano is competitive and narcissistic; he exploits personal relationships to turn up clues, and often gets friends and witnesses killed during his investigations. Still, deftly and lovingly translated into English by Stephen Sartarelli, Camilleri makes it abundantly clear that under the gruff, sardonic exterior our inspector has a heart of gold, and that any outbursts, fumbles or threats are made only in the name of pursuing truth (and, often, thwarting Italy’s egocentric and dishonest politicians in the process–but that’s another story).
Camilleri surrounds Montalbano with a motley cast of recurring characters, among them: Free Channel newscaster Nicolò Zito, whose leftist politics are simpatico with the inspector’s; lughead Catarella, who mangles every crucial communication meant for Montalbano; and informer Gegè, who manages The Pasture, a sort of open-air bordello where tricks are turned and drugs are dealt under cover of night. So while it makes sense to move through the books from first to last, it’s far from necessary. If you’re in the mood for an archeological romp, start with The Terra-Cotta Dog. Something with a complicated, contemporary clash-of-cultures angle, complete with a Tunisian terrorist? The Snack Thief. For sheer, slim elegance, the thriller Voice of the Violin wins; and for a dark, sexy tale of political corruption–The Shape of Water.