The Inspector Montalbano books, by Italian author Andrea Camilleri, supply everything I need for the beach. A good mystery. An exotic location — in this case, the beaches and piazzas of Sicily. And great writing that wears its fineness lightly, and keeps the pages turning. All with the most charming fuss-bucket of a detective to come along since Hercule Poirot: Inspector Salvo Montalbano.
As an added bonus, I don't remember a single book in the series featuring a serial killer. Plenty of murderers, but no Ted Bundys. Is anyone else sick of serial killers? The amount of mass murderers that turn up in bookstores, I'm surprised there are any of us left to read about them.
The Montalbano series is a worldwide hit, with a well-regarded Italian TV spinoff. Only recently are the books catching on in the States. They mostly takes place in the imaginary Sicilian town of Vigata. There, Montalbano runs a small police department. He's a complicated, aging man, tortured on many levels. His colleagues irritate him. His superiors are devils. Bad cooking puts him in a bad mood, though by and large he eats pretty well. He loves food: a simple pasta; some rabbit cacciatore. Imagine someone with the brains of Philip Marlowe and the palate of Mario Batali and you get the general idea.
In the latest installment, Angelica's Smile, Montalbano needs to solve a string of mysterious burglaries. A pack of thieves are targeting Vigata's wealthy elite. They seem led by a criminal mastermind. Their strategy is unique: breaking into people's vacation homes, only to snatch up keys for the owners' fancier houses back in town. They're also so brazen about it, the leader even sends a series of letters to Montalbano.
At the same time, Montalbano finds himself falling in love with one of the victims, to the point that he begins to semi-hallucinate about himself as her knight in shining armor.
Now, here's the bad news: Unfortunately this book, the 17th in the series, isn't the best one yet. Usually, the novels are tightly plotted and tense, with an ominous atmosphere hanging over the island. Sicilian politics occasionally play a role, same for the Mafia. And to lighten the mood, we get to indulge in the detective's culinary obsessions; his colleagues' problems at home; his own complicated love life with his partner Livia. And some of those things are found in this book, but all to a lesser degree. Still, Camilleri's trademark charm is well in place, especially his tendency toward wit over violence.
Camilleri has said publicly that he's already written the final book in the series. It's locked away in his publisher's office. In the meantime, he'll keep updating the series until he's fed up with his main character, or unable to write. If you've got a week at the beach coming up, I recommend Angelica's Smile —and all of its predecessors. No serial killers included.
Rosecrans Baldwin is the author, most recently, of Paris, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down