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gli arancini di montalbano

27 july 2014

The most memorable title in Andrea Camilleri's collection Gli arancini di Montalbano belongs to one of its most memorable stories: "Pezzetti di spago assolutamente inutilizzabili" ["Completely useless pieces of string"]. In the story, it's a throwaway line: the central objects of the plot are apparently useless bottlecaps.

Well, when somebody steals a boxful of apparently useless bottlecaps, you can be sure that they're not as useless as they appear. The mystery in "Pezzetti" is quickly cleared up by an application of the cui bono? question: what would anybody want with old bottlecaps? But the story exists not to demonstrate this principle of puzzlement, but for the sake of its own setting.

Some of the stories in Arancini are mystery puzzles and some are noirish atmospherics, but many of them are virtuoso turns in the technique of storytelling. "Pezzetti" builds a frame setting in which a harmless madman keeps everything that other people throw away. (Yes, everything.) There are a couple of epistolary mysteries ("'Salvo amato' … 'Livia mia'" and "Una mosca acchiappata di volo"). There are mysteries solved at second hand, like the first of those epistolaries, and "Una brava fìmmina di casa": stories where Montalbano is told a story and then put in the position of the reader-detective. And in "Montalbano si rifiuta," a story goes down such a rabbit hole that Salvo has to phone Andrea Camilleri himself to resolve it.

As in Un mese con Montalbano, these are masterful stories with a higher literary finish than many of Camilleri's novels. But without the novels, they wouldn't exist. Many of the recurring non-police characters come from early Montalbano novels like Il cane di terracotta and La voce del violino. And of course there's the cast of the commissario, Mimí and Fazio and Catarella and the various supervisors and operatives. Livia plays a more minor role (except in the epistolary story where she relays a crime for Salvo to solve at second hand). Camilleri's inventiveness was apparently inexhaustible – and I only say "was" because in 2014 he seems to have gone into semi-retirement. Unlike many a perfectly readable detective-series author who mines the same reliable vein again and again, he takes a series hero and makes him the vehicle for an entire literary project. In this respect he transcends many of his European models, and comes closer to the achievement of Raymond Chandler or Ross MacDonald. And the title story even has a recipe for the Sicilian New Years treats it invokes!

Camilleri, Andrea. Gli arancini di Montalbano. 1999. Milano: Mondadori, 2001.