I’ve referred in earlier Italian posts to my enjoyment of Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen detective novels, which through locating the protagonist in a different city for each story combine whodunnit, travelogue and social commentary. In Blood Rain, Zen is posted to Catania in Sicily, where the rivalries of different crime families and darker political forces combine to tragic effect.
But there is a more famous and far less peripatetic crime fighter to be found in Sicily. Inspector Montalbano has so far featured in 25 novels, spawning two TV series along the way (Young Montalbano is a prequel), and all based in the little town of Vigàta and the larger conurbation of Montelusa.
You’d be hard pressed to find them on a map for each is as fictional as the police officer himself, yet they are very much based on real places.
Montalbano’s creator, Andrea Camilleri, was born in Porto Empedocle in the Province of Agrigento (Empedocles was a Greek philosopher born in what is now Agrigento) and these are Vigàta and Montelusa respectively. For a few years Porto Empedocle even changed its name to Porto Empedocle Vigàta before the decision was overturned. There are a couple of pleasant streets in town (and some locations which are clearly mirrored in the books) but the area is dominated by the port and some derelict industrial areas in its vicinity.
Which is perhaps why those television series gave both the locations and characters a makeover. The slim, mustachioed detective with his full head of hair is portrayed in a statue on the main street of Porto Empedocle, but you would never associate the figure with the man we see on screen. Salvo Montalbano’s screen persona is provided by the squat, bald and usually clean-shaven Luca Zingaretti, and the action moved to the more photogenic Province of Ragusa. Muddying the waters further, the taller Michele Rondino plays the younger version with a mop of curly hair and stubbly beard.
It matters little, for the gently comedic tales that Camilleri has produced have been captured perfectly. Each episode dawdles slowly to its resolution like an old nonna climbing the alleys of Modica, which gives plenty of time to take in the food, the ambience and the culture of Sicilia. (Modica is another preferred filming location for the TV company).
Camilleri, who is in his 90’s, has already delivered the final novel to his publisher doubtless in anticipation of his own demise. Whether his creation meets the same fate we shall have to see. Perhaps there was a clue in Blood Rain, though the seemingly deadly attack on Zen was subsequently lessened when Dibdin wrote another novel. Camilleri won’t have that option.