As always, summer is a good time for some reading. A lovely vision of the Mediterranean is created in the stories of Sicilian novelist Andrea Camilleri, who passed away this month at the age of 93. His bestselling Montalbano series, set in Sicily, has seduced the imagination of his readers for years.

Crime stories with police detectives tend to be formulaic. They begin with a crime, then move on to clues and flashbacks, then to a resolution or confession at the end. The police inspector is generally an experienced, tenacious and strong-willed individual, who breaks the rules and has a complicated private life. Detective films often follow this structure too.

Scandinavian crime novels often feature serial killers or psychopaths and are psychologically dark. But the most popular detective fiction set in Italy, like that of Camilleri, tends to be sunnier. The stories feature crimes, often motivated by money, but they also have a special allure in the way that they showcase the Italian setting, culture and food.

They are not always written by Italians. Two successful foreign writers in the same vein are Donna Leon, who is American, and the late British writer Michael Dibdin. Leon’s books feature Commissario Guido Brunetti and are set in Venice, and Dibdin moves his Aurelio Zen around different Italian cities in each story.

These books are as much about Sicily, Venice and the rest of Italy, as they are about the crimes being investigated in the narrative. Camilleri’s Vigatà is an imaginary town in Sicily, based on Porto Empedocle and other villages and towns nearby – the places where Camilleri grew up. The place is fictional, yet it is still a real Mediterranean setting, with its special light and food, abandoned farmhouses, old town centres and rural Sicilian landscapes.

Camilleri’s stories have been turned into a popular television series. Like the books, the setting of these films is a composite place, shot in different places including Ragusa and Scicli and the nearby coast. Leon’s books also have a good film series, made for German television, in which the enchanting beauty of Venice is as important as the characters.

Camilleri’s books are rich in detail about the delicious Sicilian meals which Commissario Salvo Montalbano enjoys for lunch at his favourite Osteria, or which he finds ready in his kitchen when he gets home in the evenings, prepared for him by his housekeeper. A vision of the Mediterranean naturally also features the sea. In the films Montalbano lives in a house along a quiet beach, where he regularly refreshes mind and body with a solitary, magical swim in limpid, blue water.

The new roads of Tal-Balal, Buqana and Kappara, for example, do not have a shred of greenery. No trees at all. And nobody knows where and if any are being replanted

Solving the mysteries keeps readers entertained, but along the way they savour the sights and sounds of places as though they are on an Italian holiday. These books provide a way of getting to know the hidden interiors, the local community and their back room conversations, which tourists rarely encounter.

The Venice described by Leon is one inhabited by residents, who live, eat, work and shop along the narrower streets and quiet canals. The other, noisier Venice, that of tourists and visitors, is kept in the background. Brunetti enters the apartments of crime scenes and potential witnesses, hospitals and offices, factories and the back of ordinary shops. He exposes an imaginary underworld of corruption and crime. The characters gossip and know each other’s families and networks.

Likewise, it is difficult for visitors to Sicily to connect with the inner life of the island, the everyday world in the towns and villages. But the Montalbano stories open up a window on to this, making them hugely popular well beyond Sicily itself. Today, tours visit the sites of the Montalbano novels, and in Venice tours are held of the places featured in the Brunetti stories.

Back to reality

As in these books, films and tours, people connect emotionally with places. People dream of life in the Mediterranean. They imagine hot sun and deep blue sea, olive trees, vines and figs. Or historic towns and sleepy villages, with dark secrets kept behind closed doors. And the texture and colour of old, mellow stone. It is a vision which appeals to all the senses.

Visitors come to Malta too, in the centre of the Mediterranean, with this mental picture. It is, however, rapidly receding into fantasy. In reality, the sledgehammer of construction is smashing up Malta’s traditional places. Some people may still hope that the charm of the old rural world could be preserved in Gozo, but the proposed road tunnel threatens to destroy that too.

Besides protected places like Valletta and Mdina, everywhere is being utterly changed and reinvented. Even the historic route to the old citadel, today softly lined with beautiful mature pine trees, is set to be transformed into the hard, massive Central Link road.

Widespread anger is growing at the obliteration of Malta’s landscapes and urban heritage. Central Link is the latest example, in a long list. People are livid that trees on this route are to be chopped down to make way for a large, new road. They are protesting and appealing. Instead of forging ahead regardless, the government should listen. The strength and depth of the outrage should not be underestimated.

Minister Ian Borg, in particular, should stop spouting meaningless sound bites about how he cares about the environment. Empty words are not credible. If Borg wants people to believe that he cares about Malta’s trees and traditional landscapes, then he must show it in practice.

An unfortunate comment was made on social media by Foreign Minister Carmelo Abela’s wife, who posted that people should grow plants at home if they like greenery. I do agree that Maltese balconies, roofs and front gardens, unlike those in other Mediterranean countries, are sadly left bare and unused. These outdoor home spaces could be so attractive with some leafage, and this could truly transform the look of entire urban areas. But at this moment of growing despair at the government’s attitude towards the environment, her comment was crass and insensitive.

Mrs Abela’s attitude is hardly isolated. Given the state of the streets around us, it is easy to suppose that most government ministers and public officers think along those lines, including staff at the Planning Authority.

The new roads of Tal-Balal, Buqana and Kappara, for example, do not have a shred of greenery. No trees at all. And nobody has any idea where trees planted in compensation for uprooting are located. If these new trees do exist, they have no relevance whatsoever to the places and residents deprived of the original trees.

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