Detectives, with Subtitles

There are three places among the many I love in Europe that serve as home to three of my life’s greatest heroes. And since I can’t visit the places right this minute, I’m trying to spend as much time as I can with those heroes – who are all, as it turns out, fictional detectives.

Their existence is the reason I pay a few dollars each month for the European streaming service called MHz. And since it IS a streaming service, rather than what we used to call “network TV,” they, like Batman, show up whenever I summon them.

Still, each in his own way, Jules Maigret, Guido Brunetti and Salvo Montalbano are NOT like Batman. They are not at all superheroes. They are, honestly, not larger than life but heroically lifesize, full of quirks and weaknesses and contradictions, bearing both joys and sorrows. They are, therefore, grand characters in a fictional enterprise that remind us, time and again, of the nonfictional you and me. What sets them apart on the screen is their language. And even more, what sets them apart is their scenery.

One other thread connects the series as fully as DNA connects a killer to his crime. All three are based on books that have stood on their own feet for years: the Maigret novels set in Paris by Georges Simenon, the Brunetti novels set in Venice by Donna Leon and the Montalbano novels set in the wilds of southern Sicily by Andrea Camilieri. This existence of a body of written work no doubt gives the scripts depth and subtlety, like Hemingway’s famous iceberg that hides most of its bulk underwater.

Maigret, featured on MHz in a French-language series is essentially the village elder of the trio, with Paris as his village. The Belgian-born Simenon produced 75 novels plus 28 short stories featuring Commissaire Maigret between 1931 and 1972. The current French series, starring Bruno Cremer as the detective, began airing in 1991 and lasted until 2005. A newer BBC version in English features Rowan Atkinson – yes, that Roman Atkinson – but the French sounds so much better.

The Maigret series has scenery, like its counterparts showcasing Venice and especially Sicily, but most of its scenery is inside. When Maigret ventures outside, it’s usually raining or at least gray, making Paris something less than the romantic tourist destination I join the rest of the world in loving. Even indoors, the episodes are noteworthy for shadows, pale skin and bloodshot eyes captured in tight, moody compositions. To Maigret, homicide is a kind of claustrophobia, hunter and hunted circling each other at close range, each glaring defiantly into the others’ eyes.

Cremer uses his size, tall and bulky, to his advantage. He towers over most of the people he’s interrogating, smoking his omnipresent pipe. Though he doesn’t engage in beating suspects until they confess or other forms of modern-day police brutality, he is heartless, even cruel in the emotional or psychological pressure he applies in the name of getting at truth and justice.

At a glance, the setting of the Maigret series seems farther back in time than either of the other two. The whole effect is classic noir from the 1940s, though shot in color, unlike most examples of the original genre. Then again, the movie Chinatown was shot in color, and it’s hard to get any more noir than that.

When we travel from Paris to Venice, as aboard the legendary Simplon Orient-Express, we are in for a linguistic shock. While the Guido Brunetti series (and the novels by Leon) are set in and around Venice, the series is shot by German TV – in the German language. For some fans, this is a deal-breaker from the start. But if you work at it, and focus on the subtitles in English anyway, you might find yourself loving all the major aspects of the wildly popular novels.

The scenery here is Venice at its best, and that’s welcome to readers who’ve only read about the Queen City of the Adriatric, the Serene Republic. Lacking solid streets, Venice makes Brunetti (a native Venetian who knows every alleyway) walk, grab a vaporetto water taxi or commandeer a speedy police launch to get just about anywhere. Such travel is delicious. It opens up Venice as an ever-changing, once-only kaleidoscope to anyone who bothers to pay attention.

A highlight of both books and series are the meals Guido enjoys at home with his wife and teenaged son and daughter. The foods sound simple yet glorious (Venetian home cooking) and the conversations are always smart, affectionate and family-realistic, often giving Guido unique insights into the crime he is investigating.

As with the other series, Brunetti episodes are based on specific novels, not merely knocked out by a team of TV writers. Therefore, they follow the shapes and shadows of the view of Venice Leon has encouraged us to see. Venice is an old, historic and beautiful city that holds tight to its many secrets, she assures us. Yet it faces corruption almost by the minute, being part of Italy, and also is under attack by the forces of its own natural setting as islands in a lagoon.

Greed is the most recurring theme here, nearly always corporate greed that does things that damage Venice almost daily, seeking higher profits and personal gain by destroying an environment already suffering from climate change. Brunetti’s Venice may flirt with being eternal, but it also seems on the verge of destruction. In Leon’s books, begging gypsies and street-hustling Africans are victims of crimes rather than criminals. Most of her criminals, though seldom seen, wear designer ties and business suits.

My personal favorite of the three series, for any reason, no reason and every reason, is Sicily-based Detective Montalbano. It is also a remarkable completion of the circle, since Camilieri started out writing for Italian television by adapting crime novels featuring… Maigret.

Maigret and Montalbano are quite different, as are the two film styles. Much of Montalbano is set outdoors – with blue skies and a bright blue sea, in which the detective swims incessantly for exercise and from which come his numberless seafood feasts. Not surprisingly, Montalbano and his team of young, good-looking investigators (unlike their Paris counterparts out of a Brueghel painting) all sport tans.

Salvo Montalbano deals with Sicilian crime in a way that’s true to this terrain – nearly every crime involves the Mafia in some way, though it’s a much more diversified, less cliched Mafia than the one we know from The Godfather and other American movies. The Mafia is presented as, in some ways, a simple and accepted fact of Sicilian life. Montalbano and all other believers in non-corrupt business or government continually battle the mysterious links that lead back to the island’s crime families.

Perhaps as beloved as Brunetti’s family meals, Montalbano’s forays into a Sicily some would say is gone are always entertaining. Camilieri, we’ve read, felt a nostalgia for the Ragusa Province of his youth. He decorated his often-dark tales with slang-talking yokels as rich as any ever created by Shakespeare. We watch as the detective crawls out of his dusty, dented blue car in the countryside, and we never know who or what half-toothless, google-eyed, gimp-legged rustic he’ll end up interrogating.   

Montalbano also adds a certain interest by being oddly single. “Oddly” meaning: he’s eternally involved in a long-distance romance with a woman named Lidia up in Genoa, whose phone calls have a way of always interrupting the action. Since both Maigret and Brunetti are happily and long-married men, it’s at least a welcome change to watch Montalbano navigate the parade of knockout, exotically Sicilian-looking women that each crime deposits at his office door.

From Montalbano’s Sicily, Maigret’s Paris seems as far away, and almost as cold, as the surface of the moon. That leaves Brunetti’s Venice as a mezzanine between the two official floors. Despite differing climate, scenery and personality, the three detectives always entertain us figuring out who-dun-it.      

Photos (from top): the late Bruno Cremer as Maigret, Uwe Kockisch as Brunetti, and Luca Zingaretti as Montalbano.