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Blind, Andrea Camilleri dictated this delightful mystery novel before his death at 93

Half the fun of reading a mystery by the late Andrea Camilleri is watching his detective, Inspector Salvo Montalbano of the Sicilian police, as he bluffs, breaks rules or even flat-out lies for justice’s sake. One of Montalbano’s favorite tricks is to hold up a sheet of paper, read out loud something damning to the suspect sitting across from him, and watch the villain give himself away. As the newly incriminated one is handcuffed, the reader realizes that the inspector was ad-libbing — that, actually, that sheet of paper had nothing on it.

We might not want our own cops to break the rules so blithely and often, but Montalbano can do so and stay in our good graces because of the enormity of the task he faces: maintaining at least a semblance of law and order in a region rife with Mafia-sponsored corruption. When the prosecutors are bribable, when your supervisor is afraid to get crossways with the mob, when your fellow citizens have become inured to high levels of dishonesty and violence — well, where’s the harm in “reading” from a blank piece of paper now and then? Or as Montalbano himself put it in “A Voice in the Night” (2012), “how do you remove s--- from the middle of the street without a pooper-scooper? You have no choice but to use your hands and get them dirty.”

Andrea Camilleri, Italian author of Montalbano detective series, dies at 93

In “The Other End of the Line,” Montalbano’s 25th outing, the inspector takes his latest case personally. Forced to get a new suit for a wedding he has promised to attend with his longtime companion, Livia, the inspector puts himself in the hands of a highly recommended local tailor, Elena Biasini. To his surprise, the fitting is a pleasant experience, mostly because Elena is so attractive and engaging. Despite having been in the same room with her only a couple of (wholly innocent) times, Montalbano is deeply disturbed when Elena is found dead in her office, her body raked by cuts from a sharp tool of some sort. One of his colleagues poses the problem succinctly: “She was a woman who had a gift for being liked by everyone. She’d given work to so many people in town. She wasn’t a homewrecker, didn’t make married women jealous, or bust anyone’s chops. And yet, it’s also clear that this was a crime of passion.”

There is no shortage of suspects, including one of Elena’s ex-boyfriends and a young employee whose infatuation with her became so pronounced that she had to fire him. Montalbano spends a lot of time checking on their alibis; as he does so, troubling aspects of Elena’s past begin to surface.

Montalbano’s creator made a career in the theater, notably as a teacher of play-directing in Rome, and his gift for dialogue reflects that background. He was also lucky enough to find a fine translator, the American poet Stephen Sartarelli, who is especially good at rendering Sicilian dialect and general verbal muddle in English. Take, for example, the verbally challenged Catarella, the cop shop’s male receptionist, who has been minding the murder victim’s cat at Montalbano’s expense and now has a question for him.

“I wannit a tell yiz. ’at F’renix [a local store] axed me t’ax yiz if y’er also gonna pay for the cat’s letter.”

“Letter? What letter?”

“Chief, I swear, I tried a ax ’em, but I dint unnastand. ’Ey jess said sum’n ’at sounded like a ‘cat letter.’ ”

“Was it cat litter?”

“Yeah, ’a’ss it, Chief! ’A’ss azackly right!”

After this farrago, what can Montalbano do but agree to foot the bill for the letter/litter, too?

In an author’s note at the end of “The Other End of the Line,” Camilleri thanks one Valentina Alferj, who helped him write the book “not only physically but also by intervening creatively in its drafting. In other words, now that I am blind, I would not have been able to write this story (nor those that I hope will follow) without her.” Camilleri died at age 93 in July of this year, but at least one more novel did follow (it’s due out in the United States next spring), and possibly there are more. Let’s hope so, because for anyone who likes mysteries with good plotting and characterization, vivid local color, and sparkling language, the Montalbano series is azackly right.

Dennis Drabelle is a former mysteries editor of Book World.

By Andrea Camilleri

Translated from the Italian by Stephen Sartarelli

Penguin. 304 pp. Paperback, $16.

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