Can you imagine Agatha Christie writing herself into her final Hercule Poirot novel to discuss the detective's case with him as it unfolds? Neither can I. And indeed, Christie maintained her omniscient aloofness throughout Poirot's swan song, "Curtain," which came out a few months before her death in 1976.
Andrea Camilleri, who died in 2019 at age 93, was prolific, but the Italian novelist was no Dame Agatha. His plots hold their share of surprises, and the little gray cells of his protagonist, Inspector Salvo Montalbano, work just fine. But Montalbano owes his success less to brain power than to his idiosyncratic approach to police procedure, which combines integrity and chicanery in roughly equal measure.
Unlike his colleagues in the fictional Sicilian town of Vigata, Montalbano does not take bribes, bend under pressure from politicians or priests, or kowtow to the mafia; but he will cut corners, tell lies, disobey orders and make himself scarce as needed to thwart outside meddling.
Yet Camilleri answered to the same impulse that led Christie to write "Curtain": to give a proper send off to such a reliable and valued protagonist. And as a man of the theater who directed plays by the likes of Pirandello and Beckett, Camilleri was no stranger to unorthodoxy. Hence his decision to insinuate himself into "Riccardino" as "Author," who periodically bickers with his own creation, Montalbano, about where the story is going and how the case should be solved.
That case is tantalizing. Early one morning the inspector is awakened by a phone call from a man who identifies himself as Riccardino and chides his listener for being late for their appointment, which was set for right now. Montalbano gets rid of the guy by saying he's on his way, hangs up, and goes back to sleep. When Montalbano is assigned a new murder case later that same day, he discovers that the victim is Riccardo Lopresti, known as Riccardino, who was shot dead at the rendezvous site shortly after dialing the inspector's number, presumably by mistake.
Montalbano soon learns another strange fact about Riccardino. He made cuckolds of his three best friends, who knew of and tolerated their wives' infidelities with him. Same with Riccardino's own wife, who also knew but looked the other way. Untangling this knot of extraordinary tolerances, Montalbano intuits, is essential to finding out who killed Riccardino and why.
Populating the novel is the usual cast of characters, foremost among them the cop shop's inimitable secretary, Agatino Catarella, who blends obsequiousness, prudery and verbal ineptitude into a patois all his own. Here he is, confessing to Montalbano that he, Catarella, is on the horns of a telephonic dilemma: "On one enn' o' the line 'ere's yiz tellin' me ya don' wanna be distoibed, ann' onn 'e other enn' o' the line 'ere's 'Izzanner the C'mishner 'oo wants a talk t'yiz poissonnly in poison an' oigently in oigency." The reader can almost hear Camilleri's longtime translator, Stephen Sartarelli, chuckling over his rendition of Catarella's chatter as that mishmash of h-dropping Cockney and diphthong-slaying Brooklynese.
The presence of the "Author" in the tale is fitfully amusing but ultimately unsatisfying.
The premise might have worked well. "Author" met Montalbano, found him to be a bottomless source of true crime stories, and started writing about him in the form of novels and scripts for a Montalbano series on Italian TV (which is available for streaming in the United States). So far, so good, but Camilleri rides his own cleverness too hard, having Author and Montalbano team up to break the fourth wall, as when the inspector expresses his surprise at the depth of Author's familiarity with the Riccardino case and wonders whom the informer is.
"Salvo, it's totally the other way around," Author replies. "It's me who informs you . . . This story about Riccardino, I'm writing it as you live it. It's as simple as that." Author goes on to complain about the times when Montalbano's misunderstanding of their relationship obliged Author to depart from his plan for a novel to placate his leading character, who had his own notion of what he should do next. In short, we're in M.C. Escher territory, where hands draw themselves - a reference that will seem more apt when you read the novel's last few pages, in which Salvo Montalbano's own hands contribute to his leave-taking.
Despite its ill-advised venture into metafiction, "Riccardino" is a must for Montalbanians. (Also, it comes with a rich backstory: According to Camilleri's publisher, the author mailed the manuscript to them before he died and requested that it be locked away in a drawer and not published until he was gone.) But if you are coming to the series for the first time, this is definitely not the novel to start with. Try "The Shape of Water" or "The Terra Cotta Dog" or "The Safety Net," novels in which Salvo does some of his best work while the small-a author stays in his rightful place.
Dennis Drabelle is a former mysteries editor of Book World. His new book, "The Power of Scenery: Frederick Law Olmsted and the Origin of National Parks," will be out in November.
By: Andrea Camilleri, translated from the Italian by Stephen Sartarelli.
Publisher: Penguin, 272 pages, $14.s99.
COMING SUNDAY: A review of "The Sentence," by Louise Erdrich.