THE POTTER’S FIELD is being published this week and I am more than ready. For those who have not yet discovered Salvo Montalbano, police inspector assigned to Vigata, Sicily, you are in for a treat. Salvo is not the most energetic of characters tasked with the job of solving problems, murders, that disrupt the general public. But Salvo has a curious mind and the ability to get to the bottom of things with the least amount of agita.
Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano is one of the most interesting, annoying, and engaging characters in the world of police procedurals. He is the voice of reason in the town of Vigata, in Sicily. While Vigata is not a real place, the characters who inhabit it are very real. Camilleri peoples the area with the good, the bad, and the very bad, acknowledging that the Mafia exists and corruption is endemic. But Salvo and his colleagues do their best and usually the people who are very bad get their just desserts. Salvo has his weaknesses. His off again/on again relationship with Livia, who treks from Genoa to Sicily much more often than Salvo does the reverse route, generally ends when he gets so involved in a case that he forgets she is there. Livia absolves him of his blinkered vision because Montalbano’s saving grace is that he becomes overly involved with the survivors of the mayhem; Salvo wears his heart on his sleeve and it generally complicates his life.
The Montalbano books have evocative titles: THE SHAPE OF WATER, THE TERRA- COTTA DOG, THE VOICE OF THE VIOLIN, THE SNACK THIEF to name some. The cover art is compelling because it isn’t. None of the covers suggest mystery and mayhem. The colors most often used are blue and terracotta, colors that evoke Sicily.
The author and his extraordinary translator, Stephen Sartarelli, provide moments of humor throughout the story. The bane of Montalbano’s existence is the desk officer, Cartarella, who has never met a sentence he couldn’t maim. Montalbano’s housekeeper keeps his refrigerator full, unless Livia is in residence.
Camilleri pokes fun at his characters and his readers. IN AUGUST HEAT, Camilleri gives us this – “He sat outside until eleven o’clock, reading a good detective novel by two Swedish authors who were husband and wife, in which there wasn’t a page without a ferocious and justified attack on social democracy and the government. In his mind Montalbano dedicated the book to all those who did not deign to read mystery novels because, in their opinion, they were only entertaining puzzles.” (p. 113-114) Camilleri knows his audience and lets us know that while it may not be great literature, mysteries are far more than just puzzles and they are far more fun to read.