And what a chord. Except for a few young crime writers who complain that his world lacks grit, Italians can't get enough of Montalbano, on the page or on the screen.
It's hard to imagine an American mystery writer with comparable influence. In 2001, Italy's center-right government withstood an uproar about alleged police brutality against protesters at a Group of 8 summit in Genoa. Later, the leftist Camilleri published a novel in which the Genoa incidents angered Montalbano so much that he considered quitting the force.
Some Italian police officers agreed with Camilleri; others thought Montalbano's reaction rang false. The upshot: Two police unions invited the author to a lengthy discussion with 600 officers.
Nonetheless, Camilleri prefers the meticulous research and intricate construction of his historical novels, which ride Montalbano's commercial coattails. "I have more fun writing these," he says. "First of all, because I can do linguistic experiments. That would be a problem for readers in the mysteries. In 'The Brewer of Preston,' I had great fun. I had seven Italian dialects in there."
Like the mysteries, the historical novels are set in Vigata and are based on real events because, he grumbles, "I'm not capable of making up anything."
"The Telephone Concession" is one of the best. Set in 1891, it recounts a sneaky businessman's attempt to install a telephone in Vigata. The initiative deteriorates into a delirium of political skulduggery, extortion and, that Sicilian obsession chronicled by Camilleri and many others, adultery.
Camilleri's vision of his island recalls the imaginary microcosms of Gabriel García Márquez's Colombia or the American South of William Faulkner, the Sicilian's idol.
"I remembered Dostoevsky's phrase: 'Tell the story of your village. If you tell it well, you will have told the story of the world,' " he said. "I have created this imaginary town, Vigata, the way so many writers have imagined: García Márquez with Macondo, Faulkner with his county. My Macondo is Vigata."
His writing habits
Most non-Italians associate Sicily primarily with the Mafia. Gangsters appear in Camilleri's fiction but remain only part of the landscape.
"When you write a novel about the Mafia, it's inevitable that the Mafioso becomes a somehow sympathetic character," he said. "If you think of the film ' The Godfather,' Marlon Brando's performance makes you forget that he's a killer, a bandit. . . . That's why I keep Mafiosi to a second level, so to speak."
Another constant: the influence of his wife, Rosetta. He reads manuscripts to her; she makes him rewrite entire pages.
"When I did theater, the evening of the premiere I didn't fear the big critics of the time," he said. "I feared my wife. She's pitiless."
A final farewell
Camilleri has plenty of ideas and a dozen manuscripts in the pipeline. The last installment of the Montalbano series is ready for publication upon the author's demise or incapacitation.
Camilleri wrote it as the result of a conversation in Paris years ago with two fellow mystery writers: Manuel Vázquez Montalbán of Spain and Jean-Claude Izzo of France. The three old friends amused themselves discussing how they would do away with their sleuths one day. Vázquez Montalbán and Izzo have since passed away.
"They both died before their characters, so that made me think how I get rid of mine," he said. "I do have a bit of a Sicilian thing, superstition let's say, so I invented a solution. . . . I sent it immediately to [my publisher] and said, 'Here, keep it.' This is irreversible and there's no going back. It's not like Conan Doyle, who had Sherlock Holmes fall into the abyss and then revived him. This is a literary character, and he vanishes."