A favourite fictional detective of mine these days is Inspector Salvo Montalbano. He is Sicilian, the creation of Andrea Camilleri.
Montalbano books—there is a TV series, too, which I am looking forward to binge on—are tons of fun. It is not just that the murders are intriguing, but Camilleri captures the earthiness of Sicily in charming, crisp prose. Rarely do you come across writing so straight and simple, and I think I glided through the pages more than I read. So thanks are in order to Camilleri’s excellent translator, Stephen Sartarelli as well.
Montalbano is addicted to food—an addiction that I deeply empathise with—and the books are littered with mouthwatering meals of astonishing proportions. You could say that food is top among the good inspector’s supporting cast. You begin to get an idea of Montalbano in this scene from Excursions to Tindari, at the joy you see rushing into his soul when he opens his fridge:
Caponata! Fragrant, colourful, abundant, it filled an entire soup dish, enough for at least four people. It had been months since Adelina, his housekeeper, last made it for him. The bread, in its plastic bag, was fresh brought that morning. The notes of the triumphant march of Aida came spontaneously, naturally, to his lips….
Another important character who walks through the books is Livia, Montalbano’s partner. She is fiery and Montalbano is more than a little wary of her. But that doesn’t mean he treats her well. Here’s Montalbano phoning Livia, the same night he found the caponata in his fridge. He had sat down for the meal, but was interrupted. And now, he finishes an unpleasant phone conversation with the emissary of a local don, and returns to his meal—only to be worried by a disturbing thought about Livia, who lives in another city. And so, he phones her:
‘Livia, darling, how are you?’
There was silence at the other end.
‘My God, Salvo, what’s happening? Why are you phoning me?’
‘Why shouldn’t I phone you?’
‘Because you only phone when something is bothering you.’
‘Oh, come on!’
’No, really, it’s true. When you are not feeling bothered, I am the first one to ring.’
‘OK, you’re right. I am sorry.’
‘What did you want to tell me?’
‘That I have been thinking a lot about our relationship.’
Livia — Montalbano distinctly heard it — held her breath. She didn’t speak. Montalbano continued.
‘I realised that we’re often bickering, too often. Like a couple who’ve been married for years and are feeling the strain of living together. But the good part is, we don’t live together.’
‘Go on,’ said Livia in a faint voice.
‘So I said to myself: why don’t we start all over again, from the beginning?’
‘I don’t understand. What do you mean?’
‘Livia, what would you say if we got engaged?’
‘Aren’t we already?’
’No. We’re married.’
‘OK. So how do we begin?’
‘Like this: Livia, I love you. And you?’
‘Me too. Good night, my love.’
He hung up. Now he could stuff himself with the caponata without fearing any more phone calls.
Montalbano, as you can see, will allow nothing to stand between him and food.