Maria Rejt on Working With the Great Andrea Camilleri

Posted on 10th October 2021 by Mark Skinner

Two years on from the sad passing of Andrea Camilleri and with the publication of the final Inspector Montalbano novel Riccardino, the author's UK publisher and editor Maria Rejt looks back on one of the finest back catalogues in crime fiction as well as the challenges of adequately translating Sicilian dialect, visualising a singular series through its book jackets and picking her own personal favourites from a such a consistently strong canon. 

As befits one of the literary greats, Andrea Camilleri (1925-2019) did things his own way. An intensely moral man, an epic smoker and a great raconteur, he decided to take on the Sicilian Mafia by writing a series of crime novels that have now sold in their millions - and given us one of Europe's great fictional detectives in Inspector Salvo Montalbano. In a departure from usual practice Camilleri also decided to write Montalbano's last case in 2005. The typescript stayed locked in a safe as his body of work grew in tandem with his fame and popularity. Now Riccardino - the 28th novel in the series - will be published in the UK this October, translated by Stephen Sartarelli, who has translated the series from the start.

Inspector Montalbano was first introduced to his English-speaking readership back in 2003 with The Shape of Water, some nine years after its first publication by Sicilian publisher, Sellerio, in March 1994. The long delay happened for no other reason than the challenge of finding the right translator for Camilleri's singular prose style: his use of the local Sicilian dialect had to be faithfully conveyed. It wasn't the only piece of the English-language publishing puzzle, but certainly the most important one, and Stephen Sartarelli has done the books proud. His care and sensitivity with each text have faithfully conveyed the voice and idiosyncratic style of Camilleri's work, not to mention loving descriptions of each meal that the Inspector appreciatively consumes!

The second publishing challenge concerned the covers. It took a while to settle on the right approach and the first hardback jacket for The Shape of Water played it very safe with a sun-bleached photograph of an imposing Sicilian building. But as soon as we saw Jeff Fisher's portfolio of work we knew that he would be the perfect illustrator with his colourful and maverick designs. And so Jeff has illustrated every one of the hardback covers: we even reissued The Shape of Water in the new look, and Camilleri himself declared that these were his favourite covers of all his international editions.

So to the novels themselves. First conceived as a shot across the Mafia's bows, The Shape of Water was written and published long before 9/11, 7/7, the financial crash of 2008, Brexit, Trump and Covid. But the novels have, each and every one, stayed relevant throughout each of these global shocks. It's not just that Camilleri tackles screaming injustice and the abuse of power, it is in the way he tackles it. With warmth, compassion and humour he shows how eternally valuable these qualities are. He hates the exploitation of the vulnerable in any shape or form, the pomposity of power and the ubiquitous corruption of government officials. Instead he shows us time and again what he considers important in life: support for the underdog, the simple pleasures of food, conversation, community - and the occasional swim. Pick any of his novels at random and the author's humanity is at the very core of each.

With a 28-novel series it can be daunting to come to it afresh as a new reader.  I am often asked to pick my favourites, a tough task when each has given me immeasurable pleasure. But looking back at the series now I have chosen five of them which, when read together, showcase all Camilleri's brilliance and compassion.

The Snack ThiefThe Potter's Field, August Heat, and The Cook of the Halcyon see him tackle the vulnerability of young immigrants and the murder of sex workers, Montalbano's hopeless efforts to organise a holiday (renting the villa from hell), and his undercover work as a chef in a brilliant Mafia-sting operation aboard a beautiful schooner. All classic Camilleris and wonderful, thought-provoking entertainments. Which leads me to my fifth and final choice, Riccardino, possibly the most maverick of them all. Like many in the series the final Montalbano novel begins with an interrupted dream and a comic misunderstanding. And as the Inspector's investigations stutter and stumble the author himself decides to make an appearance or two in the novel's pages, helping Salvo in solving the case. As if nobody, not even the great Inspector, is perfect...

As I finish writing this piece, I realise it is July 19th, two years since Andrea Camilleri's death. So there's really only one way to sign off: with a huge and heartfelt thank you for all the reading joy he continues to give us.


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