by Scott Adlerberg
When the summer hits and the weather gets real hot, is there any place you like to visit every year? I mean visit through reading, armchair travel. Since I don't have the money to fly off to wherever I want, I have to be content, like most people I guess, to do most of my traveling through books. And what better way to visit places than through crime fiction? Am I in the mood to travel to Cornwall, England? Great. I can read the excellent Superindent Wycliffe novels of W.J. Burley. Iceland, with its volcanoes and glaciers? Simple. I pick up a Detective Erlendur book by Arnulder Indriason. I've enjoyed visiting Norway in summer courtesy of Karin Fossum, and Amsterdam in the company of Janwillem van de Wetering's Grijpstra and de Gier is always fun.
Still, the past few years, during July and August, I find myself returning to one place in particular, Sicily, as I make my way through the great Inspector Montalbano series, written by Andrea Camilleri. Ninety years old and still going strong, Camilleri was born in Sicily and knows his complex island inside and out. There have been 19 Montalbano novels translated so far from Italian into English as well as a collection of stories about the inspector, and as of now there are at least 4 more books still to be translated. It seems, too, that the series will have a definitive end, since Camilleri has said that he's written a novel that will be the final Montalbano story. It's written and sitting with Camilleri's publisher. But according to the author, it cannot be released till it's clear that he's suffering from Alzheimer's. Until then, still of sound mind, he'll keep working on new Montalbano stories.
But what about these books makes them ideal for summer reading? Well, with its history, corruption, and beauty, Sicily never ceases to be a fascinating place, and the Montalbano books primarily take place in the heat and sun, with the sea, of course, never far away. The novels mix darkness and light beautifully, never shying away from presenting social ills and human evil and the intractable problems that plague Sicily - and Italy as a whole - but sprinkling in a lot of humor, much of it through Montalbano himself. He's a remarkably likable character, gruff and sardonic, idiosyncratic in his methods, a difficult guy for his superiors to handle. He's a man with little patience for the idiocies of bureaucracy but who stands by those working for him and shows a great deal of empathy for underdogs. His long developing relationship with his girlfriend, Livia, is also well-done. Both have careers that consume them, and they go through a contemporary couple's ups and downs trying to make their relationship work. Then there's the food. Montalbano loves to eat (though he keeps himself fit), and the books integrate his love of food into the fabric of the stories. Reading these books, you just want to be in Sicily, go to Sicily at once, and like Montalbano, be sitting at a table in some tiny restaurant near the sea, in the sun, eating what he's having for lunch and washing it down with cold white wine, preferably bone dry.
I've read six of the Montalbanos so far and I'm sure this summer I'll read one or two more. Sicily's a place I never get tired of visiting, and the Montalbano books evoke it with grit and a sense of the absurd. At the same time, no matter how dark the plots get, the books make the point that you should never forget to try to carve out a moment of pleasure for yourself. These novels satisfy as both crime fiction with depth and utterly pleasurable escapes.
What about for you? Any series of books you like going to in the summer, for armchair travel?