When we talk about a writer being "famous", the term is often loosely used: many winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature and the stars of literary magazines would achieve little name recognition in high streets. But, in Italy, it rapidly becomes clear, Andrea Camilleri is seriously well-known.
In a café near the Vatican, preparing for our interview, I have on the table a stack of the English editions of his series of novels – most recently, The Potter's Field – about the Sicilian detective Salvo Montalbano. Customers and waiters, recognising the name on the covers but not the design or titles, swoop to pick up the books and whoop "Camilleri!" or "Montalbano!", wanting to know the reason for this immersion in one of Italy's most celebrated writers, who is also a media celebrity from his political punditry on television. He is so recognisable that a TV comedian, Fiorelli, does a popular impression of him. When I tell one woman that I have come to interview the author, she adopts a bad-news face and says: "Oh, no! Wrong place! He lives in Sicily!"
In fact, Camilleri comes from Sicily – he was born in Porto Empedocle in 1925 – and on the day we meet is about to go home for the summer, but he mainly lives and works in an apartment on a high floor of a mansion block in a wealthy section of Rome, close to the headquarters of RAI, the Italian broadcaster for whom he long worked and which now produces a top-rating Montalbano TV series (screened by BBC4 in Britain). This series has extended the renown of the character and his creator; the increasing impact of the books outside Italy was also recognised last week when Camilleri received the International Dagger, the highest foreign honour of the British Crime Writers Association.
The living room of his home in Rome has books neatly shelved from floor to ceiling. Lighting one of many cigarettes – the suppleness of his mind and body at 86 defy medical opinion on the risks of chain-smoking – Camilleri indicates a central bookshelf, explaining that this contains "my most important authors". Here are the complete works of James Joyce, Georges Simenon and two fellow Sicilians: Leonardo Sciascia (1921-1989), a pioneer of Italian crime writing with books including The Day of the Owl, and Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936), whose plays, including Six Characters in Search of an Author, Camilleri directed during a long career in theatre, and whose short stories influence his prose fiction.
Sciascia was a close friend and remains a posthumous inspiration. "I call him the electrician Sciascia. What I mean is that, when I feel like my batteries are low, I take up a book by Leonardo, I open it, I read two pages and my batteries are recharged." Pointing to the many volumes of Pirandello, the writer explains that there is a statue of the 1934 Nobel laureate in Porto Empedocle. Recently, the authorities decided to place nearby an image of Inspector Montalbano, as part of a tribute to Camilleri that also included the extraordinary step of officially adding to the town's name the word "Vigàta", the fictional location of his cop.
Laughing throatily, the writer explains: "Pirandello, in his statue, has his finger pointing like this …" – he makes his hand into a child's pretend gun. "And, because of where the Montalbano statue is, it's as if he's pointing and saying: 'What are you doing here?'"
Until he was almost 70, Camilleri was a minor historical novelist who was better known as a director of Pirandello. He was an author in search of a character, and that character turned out to be Montalbano. When a protagonist becomes a phenomenon, I am always interested in whether the novelist remembers the exact moment of conception. Camilleri does: "I know exactly when he arrived. In 1994, I was stuck on a historical novel called The Brewer of Preston. I couldn't organise it the way I wanted, I had not found the key to structure it, and then decided that the best solution was to set it aside and write something else. And then I said to myself: what can I write? The way I used to write novels was to start with the very first thing that struck me about a subject. It was not methodical: the first thing I wrote would never be the first chapter, maybe it would become the fourth or fifth chapter. Then I said: but you can write a novel from first to last chapter with a perfect order of logic. I saw the form of the thriller as a cage that does not allow you to escape. And so I began to write the first Montalbano novel – The Shape of Water."
Originally, the central detective was called simply The Commissioner, but Camilleri was conscious of being influenced by the Spanish writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, who wrote a series about the investigator Pepe Carvalho, and so he baptised his new character in gratitude; serendipitously, Montalbano is a common Sicilian surname. Camilleri felt finished with the story after a second novel, The Terracotta Dog, but, he explains, "I kept receiving calls from my publisher bombarding me with 'Oh no, you must give me another Montalbano' – and that's how the story of Montalbano started."
Part of the success of the series has come from their popularity as summer reads, and the books may be responsible for boosting restaurant profits in holiday resorts because a signature characteristic of Montalbano is his love of food. Called to the discovery of a corpse in The Potter's Field, the policeman breaks off to ravish a picnic consisting of "a loaf, a whole tumazzo cheese and a flask of wine".
"I don't think of him as greedy," explains Camilleri. "It's the same in the books of Simenon where Maigret is a man who loves good food. I think it is a sort of unconscious revenge of vitality, an affirmation of being alive in the face of continuous death. Maybe eating subconsciously expresses the pleasure of feeling alive. A life-force."
One of the pleasures of the books for English language readers, since the sequence began to appear in 2005 in Stephen Sartarelli's elegant translations, is the way they chart Italian history over the last two decades: the transition from the lira to the euro, the fluctuations in the methods and impact of the mafia, the turbulent government of Silvio Berlusconi. Had Camilleri consciously set out to use the crime novel for social commentary? "Yes, that was always my aim. In many crime novels, the events seem completely detached from the economic, political and social context in which they occur. It brings me back to the example of Maigret again. There's very little sense of the history of France in the Maigret books. There is no social fact or an event that allows the story to be dated. In my books, I deliberately decided to smuggle into a detective novel a critical commentary on my times. This also allowed me to show the progression and evolution in the character of Montalbano."
In recent episodes, Montalbano has been dyspeptic about the Berlusconi years. In August Heat, he turns a Dante quote about Italy's being "a ship without a helmsman" into a reflection on the country's having, in the media magnate turned prime minister, "a helmsman it could do without". The Paper Moon contains a paragraph-long rant about Berlusconi's rise.
When these sections are quoted, Camilleri responds: "Well, look … I am proud to be one of the first signatories of the manifesto written by the Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio, when Berlusconi decided to get into politics. In that manifesto, we were imploring Italians not to vote for him. So my anti-Berlusconism is long-established, and unfortunately we were right. Because the damage Berlusconi did was not always visible during his office, but you can see it now. These are problems that the current government of technicians has gone some way to address." In another of the recent novels, the detective complains about the external influences on the Italian state: the nation serves two masters, he complains – America and the Roman Catholic Church.
"Ah. Be careful with the dates of the books," Camilleri warns. "Montalbano novels are often published two or three years after I have written the book. That particular novel was written at the time of President Bush calling on Italy to give a hand to help America in her wars; it was the time of Tony Blair. But that the church has enormous influence on politics and Italian life is indisputable. I mean to say that our state is secular, but often forgets to be."
Whereas Berlusconi and Bush have come and gone as targets in the books, the mafia has, like the Vatican, been a constant background presence. The Potter's Field opens with the detective suffering a nightmare that the mob has formed a government and is now running Italy officially rather than surreptitiously. Camilleri's determined opposition to Cosa Nostra is motivated partly by birthplace (Sicily is the motherland of the mobs) and partly by reading: his hero Sciascia wrote, in The Day of The Owl, the first anti-mafia novel, and the Montalbano books are dedicated to the same purpose.
"An amazing thing happens in Italy," Camilleri says. "That we have MPs and senators involved with the mafia. They continue to be called honourable when they are not at all. It's not far from that to taking over power. At least until some time ago – because things are fortunately changing – Montalbano's nightmare had a good chance of turning into reality. I went harder on this subject in the books than has been reflected in the TV adaptations. It was like giving a warning to my readers."
He is angered by what he sees as Hollywood's glamorisation and mythologising of the mafia – the books feature sarcastic asides about The Godfather – and aims to counter this with more realistic and critical depictions. So has he ever feared the reaction of the gangsters? "The mafia is not interested in the novels. The mafia's cultural attention extends to newspapers and TV – they are not interested in fiction. The mob gave no trouble to Sciascia when he wrote The Day of the Owl. They judge works of fantasy as irrelevant." During the next question, he grabs the arm of the interpreter, Carlo Catalogna, and says: "I also wanted to add that the mafia kills journalists and not novelists."
Apart from the mafia, another major Sicilian influence on the books is linguistic. In a manner that Sartarelli's English translations capture through use of cockney and other dialects, the Montalbano novels are written in a combination of traditional Italian and the Sicilian tongue.
"Yes," Camilleri explains, "I studied when Sicilians use the dialect and when the national language. The dialect is always confidential, a non-institutional relationship, intimate, a friendly atmosphere. The use of Italian language creates an immediate officialness, a distance. Italian is used to make law, to suggest intimidation, power, distance, emphasis."
In a telling illustration, he recalls the anti-mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone conducting an interrogation of a mobster known as "Joe the tanner". When Falcone began to address him in Sicilian with the words "I would like to ask you …", the gangster stopped him and insisted on speaking only in Italian rather then their shared native language.
Camilleri's detective novels are notable for dealing, in a deceptively jokey and congenial tone, with dark concerns. "Humour is important to me," he acknowledges. "I don't use it only in crime novels but in my novels in other genres. The soldier who fights the battle does not know what is the strategy of the supreme command, but a writer must know the strategy of his novel. And humour and irony are part of my strategy."
Beneath the jokes, one of the recurrent concerns of the books is what it means to be a good Italian policeman. It is an assumption of British and American justice that cops remain politically neutral, supporting governments of whatever colour, but Montalbano worries that the political extremities in Italy – encompassing communist, fascist and Berlusconi administrations – may call for moral resistance and a questioning of orders.
He expands on this theme: "The elements of a good policeman in Italy today are, first: to be deaf to political pressures – this is a serious situation that is often a handicap to police operations. Second: sometimes refusing to obey an order is a virtue, not a sin. Third: loyalty to your vocation and to those virtues that made you a policemen."
It seemed to me that some Pirandellian techniques of theatre – such as games with structure and texts within texts – can be detected in the Montalbano books. "Yes. The theatre taught me a lot about dialogue. When I am writing a novel, if a new character enters, I first of all write the conversation he has with another character and then describe him physically. That certainly comes from my theatre experience. But it was my TV experience that taught me the art of writing a detective story. I was the producer for Italian TV of 30 episodes of Inspector Maigret and worked closely with Diego Fabbri, the screenwriter. Fabbri used to buy five copies of the same novel. And you know in a novel, there's storyline A that starts and stops, then storyline B that starts and stops, then C when the storyline picks up on A again. And so on. He tore the pages and put all the storylines in a row, then – as if playing cards – shuffled them into a different order and wrote new link scenes. Years later, when I was writing a mystery novel, all this came back to me."
In common with his creator, Montalbano is an avid reader of detective fiction. Developments in plots remind him of a particular detail in a Maigret story; in The Track of Sand, the cop interrupts an investigation to buy an armful of Swedish crime novels, including Henning Mankell's Wallander books. Looking around Camilleri's shelves as we talk, they seem to contain almost every major crime series, including a complete set of Ian Rankin's Rebus books in Italian translation.
Rankin, I mention, has recently announced that he is bringing back Rebus from retirement, having missed him, just as Conan Doyle had to save Sherlock Holmes from his watery death at the Reichenbach Falls, when readers protested at his demise. There have so far been 19 Montalbano novels, of which 13 have appeared in English to date. So has Camilleri given any thought to how and when the series might end?
"I finished him off five years ago. That's to say, the final novel in the series of Montalbano is already written and deposited at the publishing house. When I get fed up with him or am not able to write any more, I'll tell the publisher: publish that book. Sherlock Holmes was recovered …" – with his cigarette-free hand, he mimes the detective being pulled from the water – "but it will not be possible to recover Montalbano. In that last book, he's really finished."
• Andrea Camilleri won the 2012 CWA International Dagger (for translated crime) for The Potter's Field, translated by Stephen Sartarelli. Camilleri talks to Mark Lawson in Front Row, BBC Radio 4, Monday 9 July, 7.15pm.
Praise for Andrea Camilleri and the Montalbano Series
“Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano mysteries might sell like hotcakes in Europe, but these world-weary crime stories were unknown here until the oversight was corrected (in Stephen Sartarelli’s salty translation) by the welcome publication of The Shape of Water…This savagely funny police procedural…prove[s] that sardonic laughter is a sound that translates ever so smoothly into English.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Hailing from the land of Umberto Eco and La Cosa Nostra, Montalbano can discuss a pointy-headed book like Western Attitudes Toward Death as unflinchingly as he can pore over crime-scene snuff photos. He throws together an extemporaneous lunch of shrimp with lemon and oil as gracefully as he dodges advances from attractive women.”—Los Angeles Times
“[Camilleri’s mysteries] offer quirky characters, crisp dialogue, bright storytelling—and Salvo Montalbano, one of the most engaging protagonists in detective fiction…Montalbano is a delightful creation, an honest man on Siciliy’s mean streets.”—USA Today
“Camilleri is as crafty and charming a writer as his protagonist is an investigator.”—The Washington Post Book World
“Like Mike Hammer or Sam Spade, Montalbano is the kind of guy who can’t stay out of trouble…Still, deftly and lovingly translated by Stephen Sartarelli, Camilleri makes it abundantly clear that under the gruff, sardonic exterior our inspector has a heart of gold, and that any outburst, fumbles, or threats are made only in the name of pursuing truth.”—The Nation
“Camilleri can do a character’s whole backstory in half a paragraph.”—The New Yorker
“Subtle, sardonic, and molto simpatico: Montalbano is the Latin re-creation of Philip Marlowe, working in a place that manages to be both more and less civilized than chandler’ Los Angeles.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred)