Sicilian defence

BOOK review

The Patience of the Spider

by Andrea Camilleri

Picador, 282pp, 12.99

I HAVE THE PERFECT SOLUTION TO being cooped up in an airless plane: Andrea Camilleri. You dive into his world and you live there, tasting, sweating, smelling sea and roses until the book ends.

Camilleri is Sicilian, a writer of what are more or less whodunits set in Sicily, all of them revolving round the middle-aged and indomitable Inspector Montalbano. The books form a sequence, eight of them now in English, which gives them familiarity – characters do what you expect, like comedians with their catch phrases – but also the strength of a saga. They don't ignore politics, they don't get heavy-handed about social issues; they guide you through the realities of an unfamiliar place. They're gloriously alive.

Camilleri has been a script editor, a producer for TV and theatre, a teacher of movie-making; he didn't even start writing books until he was in his fifties, but now he often has six slots on the best-seller lists, his books sell in the millions and across the world, and he's famous enough to be parodied on prime-time TV (he's easy; he's famous for heroic smoking).

Books are his late-life enthusiasm, and it shows. Bodies creak a bit, our hero has to be told to remember his heart, characters go on day trips by charabanc and wave guns about when someone steals their pension fund and sit watching at windows; but still the ageing inspector throws himself into the lively sea (Camilleri is very good on water), stuffs himself with glorious food, has a perfect girlfriend who's much improved by not living in the same city, dives and climbs and fights and generally risks himself like a young man but is wise as an old man expects an older man to be. Montalbano is the first true baby-boomer hero: defying, not denying, age.

He's a sympathetic loner, loyal to one woman and mostly to one restaurant, moral when he doesn't need to be, honest when it's tough, and principled enough to defy authority just as his fellow Sicilians have always defied the ramshackle Italian state. But he's also human, greedy, sensual: John Wayne with a stain on his shirt from the pasta sauce.

His Sicily is a threadbare built-up zone, and through the gaps shows something grim and old and beautiful: an unkind landscape full of angry people, a sea complicated by currents and a society that has cut itself up and shuffled itself until nobody quite knows anybody any more. Illegal newcomers work the streets, wartime resistance still leaves traces, the immigrant child who steals snacks must be at all costs protected from not being loved when his mother is killed; and that's one particular quality of Camilleri. His subject is crime but the love for that child, which runs through the books like a vein, shows just how a thriller can also touch the heart.

And there is, of course, the Mafia. Sometimes it's a matter of negotiation, coded exchanges in a kind of Rotary where everyone has a gun, corruption as a system, a way to make one Mafioso bring down the next; sometimes it is the rattle of guns and the bloody circle of vendetta; and sometimes it is a horror which becomes grotesque, as when a Montalbano story turns on the traffic in children for their organs. Camilleri knows never to say too much, so the horror lives on in your mind.

You may wonder by now why the books work so well, whether it's the old northern love for southern places that blinds you, whether Camilleri is more than a high-class tourist guide. The truth is: the books wouldn't work at all if they were as immaculately mechanical as (say) Donna Leone's Venetian whodunits. These books are something else.

You may think of Georges Simenon, whose Maigret Camilleri helped bring to Italian television. Simenon's inspector always edges his way into a killer's mind, not so much checking clues and alibis as imagining the story of a crime; Camilleri's Montalbano mocks the guys in lab coats, hardly ever takes an interest in a fingerprint, as he solves what are imaginary crimes by imagining who might have committed them. This is very powerful magic: we see Montalbano, like Maigret, write his own stories.

Camilleri's bright, scented Sicily, an imagined reality, owes everything to Simenon's absolute sense of the drab, cold flatlands, the edges of towns, the unexceptional places where lives go terribly wrong; it just turns the convention gratefully upside down. Simenon had a Belgian reality to conjure and remake. Montalbano's town of Viagata is based on Porto Empedocle, where Camilleri was born, but that's "a town of 18,000 people that couldn't support all the crimes I needed" so the name had to change.

Even the language, in the Italian, has this kind of imaginary reality: lots of Sicilian words, a syntax sometimes twisted just enough to read a bit like dialect, but still understandable. It is a dazzlingly clever, very theatrical kind of impersonation and, even in Stephen Sartarelli's impeccable translations, it inevitably gets lost.

Camilleri's other godfather is more personal. He calls his books a kind of dialogue with the great Leonardo Sciascia, the first writer to dramatise a Mafia which is no more than it is, not a wide-screen morality play, no glamour and no glory. It was Sciascia who pushed him into writing in the first place, Sciascia whose words he remembered when he grew tired of his disorganised way of turning out his early historical novels. "The thriller," Sciascia said, "is the best cage a writer can choose because there are rules, you can't cheat on logic, or time or space."

So the freewheeling, amiable, dialogue-driven Montalbano stories were born, oddly enough, out of a desire to "write a novel from A to Z like God commands…". They came out more open, more fluid than conventional thrillers, so Camilleri reckons, because of his time in television: he wanted speed, he wanted sequences, not chapters. The old man certainly does not write his age.

After the first, The Shape of Water, he thought Montalbano was just a plot device, the one who solves things. He quickly found he'd invented a kind of monster: "I'd be thinking of other things and Montalbano turned up and insisted I write about him." Everything he knew went into making a life for his inspector.

It would be good to say Camilleri just gets better, but this time he doesn't. The Patience of the Spider has all the usual good things – seafood, the tricky commuter love affair, the jealous housekeeper, the idiot assistant, the landscape, the politics – but it also has a plot, a leaden, self-consciously clever switcheroo which is blindingly obvious after 30 pages. That failure breaks our trust; we can't live along with such a contrivance, and just as we've come to care about Montalbano's soul, he ends up being cunning and illegal in a dull way.

The magic dies, but it has been so strong through seven books, which are just whodunits after all, that you soon forget the eighth. You just wait and hope for number nine.

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