Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"The Snack Thief"

Andrea Camilleri's detective, Inspector Salvo Montalbano, has individualistic and even eccentric habits -- as do most of the heroes of police procedural detective stories. The Sicilian setting where he works (a renamed version of the Sicilian city of Agrigento) provides a colorful background: another essential for a good suspense tale. Bumbling or otherwise inept subordinates and variously ineffectual superiors leave Montalbano to face his challenges pretty much alone: a third element of a successful contender in this genre of fiction. The inspector's private life, including a beautiful girlfriend from northern Italy, constantly has to be put on hold as he becomes absorbed in solving his case -- also typical. In my opinion, skillful use of the norms of genre fiction leads to success: that's what I think Camilleri does.

Camilleri's 14 novels about the inspector (ten available in English) have sold many millions of copies. However, I admit, I just heard of him this week when reading The Oxford Companion to Food. Inspector Montalbano, you see, is a great gourmet with a prodigious appetite. He particularly loves Sicilian seafood dishes -- so much that the food descriptions from the stories are cited in something like ten entries in this encyclopedia! Sicily has been a seafood-loving and innovating country since the time of Odysseus: the mosaic in the illustration -- showing a fish that will no doubt soon be someone's dinner -- is from the Roman villa at Piazza Armerina, a few hours' drive from Agrigento. We made the drive (and took the photo) in 2002; on that visit, we stayed at a resort-hotel very near Camilleri's birthplace, Porto Empedocle, adjacent to Agrigento. Of course this makes the books even more appealing to me.

In The Snack Thief, the first Montalbano Mystery I've read (third in the series), the inspector is faced with two murders: a middle-class retired businessman found stabbed in the elevator of his apartment building, and a Tunisian fisherman on a boat just outside Italian territorial waters.

At the beginning, the police commissioner invites Montalbano for a dinner of "black spaghettin in squid ink. It's delicious." (p. 6) However, he becomes too immersed in following his case, and repeatedly has to call and cancel a series of promised meals at his boss's house.

As the inspector intensely follows the leads on the case, however, he stops around every 10 pages for a meal or a snack. Some delicious ones:
  • "Bring me a generous serving of the hake [in anchovy sauce]," he asks at lunch, just after beginning his investigation. He also orders "a nice plate of seafood antipasto. He was overcome by doubt. Was that a light meal? ... Eight pieces of hake arrived, enough to feed four people. They were crying out in their joy... at having been cooked the way God had meant them to be. One whiff was enough to convey the dish's perfection, achieved by the right amount of breadcrumbs and the delicate balance between the anchovies and the whisked egg. ... He let the flavor spread sweetly and uniformly over his tongue and palate." (p. 29-30)
  • "The woman [an elderly Tunisian] was crushing minced meat in a mortar, folding in grains of cooked wheat. On a platter beside her, all ready to be roasted, were some skewers of meat, with each morsel wrapped in a vine leaf.... Montalbano wasn't too thrilled with the kubba, but the kebabs had a tart, herbal flavor that made them a little more sprightly, or so, at least, he defined them according to his imperfect use of adjectives." (p. 79-80)
  • "He set the table, then looked in the fridge and found the pasta 'ncasciata [translator's note -- a casserole of ... elbow macaroni, penne, ziti, mezzi ziti, or something similar -- tomato sauce, ground beef, Parmesan cheese, and bechamel] and veal roulade from the day before. He put them in the oven at low heat... The delicious meal... prevented him from getting as angry as he would have liked." (p. 124-5)
  • "He drew up a rapid, unhappy inventory: as a first course, he could make a little pasta with garlic and oil; as a second course, he could throw something together using sardines in brine, olives, caciocavallo cheese, and canned tuna." (p. 132-33)
  • "He gobbled up a saute of clams in bread-crumbs, a heaping dish of spaghetti with white clam sauce, a roast turbot with oregano and caramelized lemon, and he topped it all off with a bitter chocolate timbale in orange sauce." (p. 225)
Does this explain why this author is so often quoted in a cooking encyclopedia? Oh, yes -- the title of the book is also food related: a child who holds a key to the murders is abandoned, and begins to steal snacks -- such as an omelet -- from other children.

For some reason, we took a photo of a police car while staying at the resort and sightseeing the ancient Greek ruins that attract tourists and historians to the region, along with the fantastic food.


Jen said...

This looks like a book I'd greatly enjoy. My (unpublished) A2 novel features a foodie who becomes involved in mysteries, and one of the reasons I had so much fun with it was being able to combine food writing with fiction.

Mae Travels said...

I hope your novel gets published soon -- I'm a real fan of foodie detectives.