Wallander, Sarah Lund, Lisbeth Salander, Harry Hole et al – we are now in thrall to the Scandanavian detective. Introduced to the characters via the wonderful BBC4 I have since escaped into the novels of Henning Mankell, the lead character appearing in my imagination something of an amalgam of the Kurt Wallander as played by Kenneth Brannagh in the British series and Krister Henriksson in the original Swedish. The bleak landscapes, strong lead characters and deft plotting draw one in and the stories rarely offer a neat resolution. Any humour is dark and countered with violence and unimaginable horror.
Recently however I have become a little jaded at this approach, now becoming something of a cliche in a world of crime fiction and television series already riddled with the predictable. I love detective fiction – to read and to watch – but sometimes you need to experience something new.
So in recent months I have read a number of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano novels. My love affair with the character started with a 99p download on offer for Kindle – La forma dell’Acqua (The Shape of Water) is the first of a long series. The books are clever, well-plotted and quirky. Even in translation the dark humour comes through and the descriptions of delicious Sicilian cuisine are mouth-watering. It is good, occasionally, to enjoy the dissection of a seafood dinner more than the taking apart of a cadaver. Montalbano now has millions of fans and will be included in the upcoming Radio 4 series Foreign Bodies: A History Of Modern Europe Through Literary Detectives.
I was interested then to see what Italian television did with the adaptation that has been shown over the past year on BBC4 and the always difficult transfer of a well-loved detective to the screen. How many brilliant crime stories have been ruined on film by poor casting? (who for example remembers Hale and Pace as Dalziel and Pascoe for ITV?).
The short answer is – I am not sure what their intention was. Luca Zingaretti is a sexy and much more attractive version of Ross Kemp and he plays the part of Salvo Montalbano with a great mix of serious intent and impatient humour. The acting of the minor characters is, however, terrible to the point of being funny. The women are either tall, young and gorgeous or short, fat and late middle-aged (do Italian women really shrink?) There also seems to be little traffic on the streets of the fictional Vigata and very few people. Politicians are invariably corrupt, priests occasionally so and frankly, most of the men are slaves to their sexual urges. So far so bad then?
No – it is wonderful. Beautiful to look at and a wonderful advert for Sicilian tourism it is 90 minutes of escapism. As with the Scandinavian classics such as The Killing and Wallander it is subtitled and for me that really concentrates the mind on what is on screen. I have been known to sit through an entire episode of Midsomer Murders, understanding every minor detail, without actually looking at the television. The only way to maintain interest in that programme is to murder half a village. Not so with Montalbano. The storylines are quite novel for a British audience, complicated as they are by Mafia influences and witnesses who are often belligerent 100 year old shepherds. But the classic whodunnit is still there – a murder of a drug dealer, a cheating husband or a crooked businessman at the heart of the tale. The language is musical, the music unintrusive (and interesting) and the culture of the island unique. The architecture is a mixture of styles shown in the golden glow of Sicilian sun and as filmed is utterly unencumbered by the insults of everyday existence such as cars, satellite dishes and pylons. Montalbano lives in the perfect beach house – coming out of the sea to dry himself off and drink espresso on the terrace. I am just a little bit in love with the place.
BBC4 is two thirds of the way through the second series to be shown in the UK and when I have seen the last episode I shall feel able to go back to the first; not better to understand the story line but to simply revel in the sounds and sights of Sicily, pick up a little Italian (recognising that the dialect is subtly different) and hear Luca Zingaretti say:
“Buongiorno signora, il commissario Montalbano sono….”