Review: The Dance of the Seagull – Andrea Camilleri

seagullI apologise that my email notification system is not working very well at the moment. While some subscribers are receiving emails for every post, some are receiving none. I have tried and failed to resolve this problem and am in the process of installing a new system to which I have to transfer all the addresses. I hope to have this working next week.


I’ve only discovered Andrea Camilleri three months ago, and considering this is now the 15th English volume in his Inspector Montelbano’s series of police procedural novels, I have a lot of catching up to do. I reviewed the 14th book in the series in December and I have a combined volume of the first three novels on my Kindle  just in case I ever find myself marooned on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean (unlikely).

Andrea Camilleri is now 87 years old and he is a wonderful example of what can be achieved if you just carry on working into old age, for The Dance of the Seagull is a cut above any other crime novel I’ve read this year, showing a mind that is as agile as any younger writer.  British crime novelist P D James is now 92 years old and shows a similar ability to keep churning out high quality books.  When it comes to sheer persistence perhaps the “very oldies” have something to teach us.

The great Inspector Montelbano is now 57 years old and is worrying about his age.  He wakes at five thirty every morning and stares at the ceiling, bemoaning an earlier time when he slept through in one stretch.  He has a much younger girl-friend and is keen to show her that he still has many of the attributes of a much younger man, but in reality, it is a bit of a struggle to keep up the pretence.

Of course, we now have  an Italian television series Inspector Montelbano which makes appearances on British television with appropriate subtitles.  Andrea Camilleri plays games with his readers by bringing this into the The Dance of the Seagull: at one stage his girl-friend Livia proposes a short break in the Val del Noto, but Montelbano refuses to go . .  .

I wouldn’t want to run into a film crew shooting an episode of that television series just as we’re walking around there . . . They film them around there, you know.’

‘What the hell do you care?’

‘What do you mean, what the hell do I care? And what if I find myself face to face with the actor who plays me? . . . What’s his name – Zingarelli . . .’

‘His name’s Zingaretti, stop pretending you don’t know. Zingarelli’s a dictionary. But I repeat: what do you care? How can you still have these childish complexes at your age?’

‘What’s age got to do with it?’ ‘Anyway, he doesn’t look the least bit like you.’

‘That’s true.’

‘He’s a lot younger than you.’

Enough of this rubbish about age! Livia was obsessed! He felt offended. What the hell did youth and age have to do with any of this? ‘What the hell’s that supposed to mean? Anyway, as far as that goes, he’s totally bald, whereas I’ve got more hair than I know what to do with!’

Montalbano's house from the TV series

Montalbano’s house from the TV series

The book opens with Inspector Montelbano opening his doors one morning and observing a seagull in it’s death-throes. It lands on the beach and does a peculiar dance, turning round and round with it’s beak turned up to the sky and then suddenly collapsing. It is a very unusual thing to see a bird die and Montelbano drives off to work unable to get the image of death out of his head.

When he arrives at the police station Montelbano immediately gets involved with a disappearance – his long-term detective partner Giuseppe Fazio has failed to turn up for work, and didn’t go home the previous evening.  Montelabano drives to the docks, the scene of Fazio’s last known visit following a report of smuggling, and hears reports of shootings in the dead of night.  One thing leads to another and Montelbano is soon on the trail of Detective Fazio, while not knowing whether he is dead or alive.

One of the charms of Andrea Camilleri’s books is the bucketfuls of local colour – we read of Sicilian restaurants, the narrow streets teeming with people, the scenery (whether the blue seas of the coast or the arid inland regions, dangerous because of deep fissures in the rocks and ancient wells).  It is to one of these inland regions that the trail of Fazio leads and Montelbano finds himself in some very dangerous situations as he discovers the gruesome remains of a body that had a terrible death.

The trail leads on via a beautiful seductress and the last members of a particularly vicious Mafia clan.  There is plenty of excitement here, but what appeals to me the most is the character of the Inspector, someone who the author now inhabits like an old glove – his foibles and eccentricities on display throughout, together with a hard-boiled cynicism which prevents him from taking anything at face value.  If ever there was a mature fictional character Montelbano is it – I already feel that I know him well and to those who have read all fifteen books he must feel like a very old friend.

I was a little disconcerted by some of the passages in which Officer Catarella appears which are written in a bizarre dialect style speech

‘Sarravacchio came poissonally in poisson.’

‘So the only one who didn’t call for him was Manzella.’

‘ ’Ass azackly azack, Chief.’

Sometimes this sort of thing goes on for a page or so and takes some thinking about.  However, I read on Wikepedia that Camalleri writes in a mixture of Italian, strict Sicilian, and a Sicilianized Italian.  This obviously presents a problem to the translator (Stephen Sartarelli) and on the whole I think he has solved it well for it would be a shame to completely lose this aspect of the original books.

I’m sorry I’ve missed out on Montalbano until recently for it would have been wonderful to see him develop book by book.  I know I could go back to the start and catch up but in reality, the chances of me doing so are fairly remote. It makes me wonder if there are any new detective series  today which I would be able to follow for so many years into the future?

10 comments to Review: The Dance of the Seagull – Andrea Camilleri

  • Sounds like a great mystery.

    Of course I read translated works. But issues like the dialect complexity that you mention in this book always bother me a little. I agree it sounds as if the translator handled it cleverly. However if I were reading this and failed to know, I think that I would really be puzzled!

  • JoV

    I too have a combined volume of the first three novels on my Kindle which I should have read on my last holiday except I was pursued by review deadlines. :) Maybe this summer holiday in Spain would kick start my reading journey of Andrea Camilleri.

    Give me a book written by the very oldies anytime. I maintain if someone live close to a century he or she definitely has a lot more time and experience to get it right and achieve mastery in whatever he or she do in this lifetime! Thanks for the review.

  • I bought this one, of course, as I am a fan of the series but haven’t got to it yet. This is a great series character, and I like hanging out with him a great deal.

  • Tom

    Guy – glad to see we think alike on this one

  • Tom

    J0V – thanks for visiting. I must compile a list of very old writers sometime. I am sure there will be some who went into decline though and never matched their earlier work!

  • Tom

    Hi Brian – yes, it certainly was a problem until I realised. I always feel that a good translator is as much a part of the creative process as the original writer

  • I love this series, but have only read three so far – great to know I’ve got good ones to look forward to, and I love the ‘meta’ bit you quote above!

  • You are the one who introduced me to Camilleri, and I agree that he’s such a wonderful writer. It is indeed inspiring to see the success of someone a bit older, when society seems to only applaud the efforts of the young. Like you, I have much to go back and read, probably starting with the first Montalbano so I can see his progression,

  • Carol Wheeler

    Death THROES.

  • Carol – thanks for that!

Leave a Reply