Mr. Camilleri’s books — most set in his native Sicily — sold some 25 million copies in Italy, where literary bestsellers are usually measured by the tens of thousands.
He had legions of readers overseas as well, thanks to the enduring popularity of his character, police chief Salvo Montalbano.
Italian state TV versions of the series starring actor Luca Zingaretti were so popular that even repeats consistently snagged the highest audience ratings. The shows were also exported to Latin America, Australia and across Europe.
Mr. Camilleri’s position at the top of the book sales charts in Italy — he often had several books high in the rankings in the same week — was even more remarkable because the author sprinkled his works with words unfamiliar to many Italians. He affectionately borrowed from the Sicilian dialect of his youth, which Mr. Camilleri saw as more richly expressive of his characters’ emotions.
He had a brilliant ear for dialogue, drawing on his many years as a theater, radio and TV director and scriptwriter before his literary career took off when he was approaching older age. Television adaptations of the Montalbano books used generous chunks of dialogue straight from the printed page.
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“After 30 years in the theater as a director, dialogue for me becomes fundamental in the structure of the novel,” Mr. Camilleri told the Associated Press in an interview in 2009.
The shows hooked millions of viewers with picture-postcard views of Baroque Sicilian towns. Tourists vied for turns to eat in the seaside trattoria where Montalbano dined, they traipsed through the beach town of Punta Secca to photograph the seaside house where Montalbano lived, and they took dips in the same crystalline waters where the character would swim to clear his head when sleuthing got heavy.
Mr. Camilleri’s books traveled well, dialect and all.
“I don’t believe there has ever been another Italian author with so many books translated into English” in just a few years, Harvard University Romance languages professor Francesco Erspamer said. Mr. Camilleri’s works were translated into some 30 languages, including Chinese.
While the Montalbano police stories shot him to fame, Mr. Camilleri was versatile in his output. Among his works are a fictionalized biography of Nobel laureate Luigi Pirandello, who was born not far from Mr. Camilleri’s hometown, and a dark novel about a sexually abused Sicilian boy’s childhood during fascism.
Best-selling fame came late in life for Mr. Camilleri. The first book in the Montalbano series, “La forma dell’acqua” (“The Shape of Water”), was published in 1994, when the author was 69.
He produced his 100th book in 2016, when he was 90. The plot of “L’altro capo del filo” (“The Other End of the Thread”), a Montalbano story, deals with the drama of thousands of migrants reaching Sicilian shores after rescue at sea. By the time he wrote it, poor eyesight, gradually fading due to glaucoma, had forced Mr. Camilleri to dictate his novels to his assistant, instead of composing them on his typewriter, where he used to work every day from before dawn for three hours.
Andrea Calogero Camilleri was born Sept. 6, 1925, in Porto Empedocle, a port village that inspired Montalbano’s fictional town of Vigata.
His first novel languished for 10 years, largely because the dialect interspersed in the characters’ conversations scared off potential publishers, according to Mr. Camilleri. By the time his first novel was published, in 1978, Mr. Camilleri was 53.
Montalbano solves crimes by pondering the psychological weaknesses of the suspect. He intuitively understands human weaknesses, because he has so many.
In an interview a few years ago with state TV, Mr. Camilleri explained Montalbano’s appeal.
“Montalbano represents the average Italian, who has some virtues and some defects, but who essentially goes through life well,” Mr. Camilleri said, venturing that “maybe Italians feel themselves represented” in the character, made all the more endearing with his foibles.
In the Associated Press interview, Mr. Camilleri, chain-smoking as always, said he resisted giving Sicily’s most famous bad guys — the Mafia — a prominent role because he did not wish to “idealize” Cosa Nostra.
But he did write a book about convicted Mafia chieftain Bernardo Provenzano, who was captured in 2006 at a Sicilian farmhouse after 40 years on the lam. Palermo prosecutors gave Mr. Camilleri all the typewritten notes the fugitive Provenzano used to communicate with his henchmen. Mr. Camilleri used the proceeds from the book, “You Don’t Know,” to help set up a foundation for children of police officers slain by Cosa Nostra.
Mr. Camilleri didn’t aim for Italy’s highbrow literary circles, where culture pages of newspapers are filled with esoteric essays. “If I write a novel,” he said, “I hope to have the biggest number of readers possible and don’t presume to write novels for an elite.”