“The Safety Net” opens like this:
“The alarm clock started ringing wildly.
“Eyes still closed, Montalbano reached out toward the nightstand with one hand and, feeling around, tried to turn it off, worried that the noise would wake up Livia, who was sleeping beside him.”
So, the blind author’s Sicilian hero reaches out blindly to find that his longtime — and long-distance — inamorata, Livia, is not sleeping beside him. Except, a minute later the real alarm clock — as opposed to the dream alarm clock — starts ringing, waking up the real Montalbano, who realizes that Livia is not only not beside him but way up north in the Ligurian region of Italy and he’d “dreamt the whole thing, including Livia’s dream.”
That’s the beauty of the Inspector Montalbano novels. In addition to the baffling crimes he solves, there’s a sense of absurdity that has the reader chuckling by page one. It’s a particularly good thing in this case since, story-wise, it’s one of Camilleri’s slighter mystery novels.
In “The Safety Net” the fictional town of Vigàta is hosting an Italian-Swedish crew shooting a TV movie set in the 1950s. The Swede in charge of production asks the natives to help by digging up old home movies and photos so the crew can approximate what the town looked like back then. Local engineer Ernesto Sabatello discovers six films his late father Francesco made from 1958 to 1963 before he died, always shot on March 27, always starting at 10:25 a.m., and always the same three-and-a-half minute stationary shot of the outer wall of a country home — nothing more. It sounds like some weird student art project. Hearing the story, Montalbano decides to investigate to help Ernesto figure out what his dad was up to.
The novel’s second plot line involves two men who break into a middle school classroom just when Mimi Augello, one of Montalbano’s right-hand men, is there speaking to his son’s teacher. The two fire a few gunshots, aiming so as not to hurt anyone, then take off. Augello, who wouldn’t endanger students by confronting the two in the classroom, gives chase, exchanging gunfire with them before they jump in a getaway car. It’s a crime that makes no more sense than the six look-alike films.
Besides Augello, the novel includes the usual cast of Montalbano’s assistants: Inspector Fazio, whose attention to microscopic detail occasionally drives Montalbano batty; and the office switchboard operator, the linguistically challenged Catarella, master of mispronunciation and strange misinformation.
Montalbano’s boundless appetite, as always, allows us to sniff and savor numerous gastronomic helpings of Italian meals, whether it’s “a plate of spaghetti with sea urchin sauce,” or “the first aroma of [roasted brochettes] of liver scented with bay leaves and onions.” That said, the Swedish presence in Vigàta also allows him the rare opportunity to express some disdain at a Palermo caterer’s attempt to re-create some Swedish offerings for the TV set locations: “He felt like spitting it back out, but this seemed unbecoming to him, and so he closed his eyes and swallowed.”
“The Safety Net,” like most of the Inspector Montalbano novels, is set in the fictional town of Vigàta, modeled on Camilleri’s Sicilian hometown of Porto Empedocle. In 2003, the town officially changed — expanded — its name to Porto Empedocle Vigàta. Perhaps only Sicilians would want to rename their town after a place that has become the reigning capital of Italian crime fiction. Then again, it was probably a smart business move. Let’s hope the Chamber of Congress also informs tourists which restaurant Montalbano’s favorite, Enzo’s trattoria, is modeled upon.
Michael F. Covino is the author of three books, including the novel “The Negative.” He has served as the book editor of the East Bay Express.
THE SAFETY NET
By Andrea Camilleri; translated from the Italian by Stephen Sartarelli
Penguin. 261 pp. Paperback, $16.