(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

The Snack Thief is the third mystery novel in Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series to be translated into English. Translated in the order they were first published, the two previous novels are La forma dell’acqua (1994; The Shape of Water, 2002) and Il cane di terracotta (1996; The Terra-Cotta Dog, 2002). Presumably, several other novels and short-fiction collections in the series will be forthcoming in English. Besides the Inspector Montalbano series, Camilleri has published a dozen or so other novels and for many years was a director and scriptwriter for television and the theater, where he first became known for dramatizing works by other famous mystery writers. Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series has been immensely popular in Italy and other European countries as well as Japan.

The series’s popularity is easy to understand. After a long apprenticeship, Camilleri has become a master of the mystery novel. In the nineteenth century, the mystery story was sometimes called a story of ratiocination. This quality of reasoning is preserved in Inspector Montalbano, who does not depend on car chases and guns for excitement but who reads books, considers human nature, conducts tricky cross-examinations, sets up his opponents, and ties clues together with the cleverness of famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.

While Montalbano carries on this rationalistic tradition, he is no pointy-headed intellectual, nor is he old-fashioned. Rather, he is a thoroughly postmodern man, almost antiheroic, with human failings and a liberal use of both four-letter words and the media. He has trouble with relationships, carrying on an affair with his girlfriend, Livia, mostly by long distance. In The Snack ThiefMontalbano is forty-four years old, Livia is thirty-three, and their relationship has been going on for six years. When Livia comes to visit and talks about marriage, having children, and adoption, Montalbano is wracked by primal fears of family responsibility. He has the same trouble relating to his father, from whom he has become separated and who is now dying.

Instead, Montalbano is attached to his self-indulgence and to his career. When he is not on the job, he lives by himself in a little house by the sea, where he can enjoy the view and take a swim. His housekeeper, Adelina, prepares and leaves him food, he cruises the excellent restaurants in the area, and he can rustle up a dish or two on his own. While he consumes a good meal, he puts his work on hold, even making a secret service agent wait and watch him eat his dinner (without offering to share). He sometimes suffers indigestion, as when he eats three pounds of sardines a beccafico. Luckily, the cuisine in the area is based mostly on seafood, but still one wonders how much the inspector weighs.

Sometimes Montalbano appears downright comic, and not only in his gormandizing. He is prone to outbursts of expletives and emotions, such as the possessive jealousy he feels over his colleague Augello’s attentions to Livia and even her attentions to the child François (the snack thief of the novel’s title). He is far from heroic, expressing fright, taking clownish falls (in The Terra-Cotta Dog) and shooting out his mirror image (in The Shape of Water). An inveterate viewer of the nightly television news on both local channels, he has the thrill of watching himself be attacked by TeleVigàta editorialist Pippo Ragonese for investigating—in the midst of a crime wave worthy of Chicago in the Prohibition era—a snack thief.

If the only-too-human character of Inspector Montalbano is one of the attractions of this mystery series, another attraction is the local color of the setting, the southwest coast of Sicily, of which both the author and his inspector are representatives. Camilleri was born there in 1925 in Porto Empedocle, near Agrigento. Montalbano is actually from Catania, on Sicily’s eastern coast, but he has grown so fond of the...

(The entire section is 1637 words.)