But when in 1978 the small, Palermo-based publisher Sellerio finally decided to take a gamble and release the novel, Mr. Camilleri's reputation as a writer started to gain momentum. Then, when Salvo Montalbano, the grumpy police inspector from "Il corso delle cose," stepped into his own and became the hero of full-blown detective novels, Mr. Camilleri realized the time had come to give up his day-job as a television and theater director.
By the late 1990s, Camilleri books were appearing in Italy's top ten bestseller lists, often six at a time. Even the author's historical novels, the collections of essays and short-stories - which were never expected to attract a wide readership - managed to piggy-back on the success of Montalbano.
By then, Mr. Camilleri had become one of the best selling Italian authors in recent publishing history, and found himself under siege from passionate fans demanding that he sign their arms or, in one usualy case, that he allow them to touch his face.
By 1998, the Montalbano television series finally ensured that Mr.Camilleri was able to tap into the most unpredictable readership of them all - the young, Generation Xers. "Just when I thought my readers were all above 40, I started to meet young men with earrings at book signings," Mr.Camilleri says.
But don't call Montalbano a publishing phenomenon in Mr. Camilleri's smoky Roman apartment, because the softly spoken Sicilian author doesn't like the hype, and doesn't believe the figures.
"Look, I am told that through Sellerio I have sold 3 million books, and with publisher Mondadori I have sold another 800,000," he says, lighting a cigarette. "But that doesn't mean I have 3 million readers. It means that I have about 250,000 faithful, who have gone out an bought more than one book - including my essay collections, such as 'La bolla di componenda' and 'La strage dimenticata.'"
"You cannot compare those sales figures with, say, Umberto Eco's 'The Name Of the Rose' or Susanna Tamaro's 'Follow Your Heart,' which in Italy sold a million copies each in a short period of time," he says.
But how could it be that a character, whose language was considered incomprehensible, could suddenly become the hero of readers and television viewers young and old? And why is it that Mr. Camilleri, once criticized for being too Sicilian, could now be mentioned in the same breath as Sicily's most esteemed modern author, Leonardo Sciascia?
Many readers believe that the key to Montalbano's success is the small-town atmosphere of the fictional town of Vigata, in which Sicilian characters can be carefully developed and given the depth they deserve.
Montalbano heads a small, idiosyncratic team of policemen in a town small enough to resemble Mr. Camilleri's own home-town of Porto Empedocle, on Sicily's southern coast, once a port frequented by Maltese traders (the name Camilleri is, in fact, Maltese). But Montalbano faces a much higher crime rate than he would in real Sicilian towns. "If that many killings took place in Porto Empedocle, it would be worse than Chicago during prohibition," Mr. Camilleri says.
Montalbano readers have come to know and love the members of Vigata's small police force. Mimý Augello, Montalbano's second-in-charge, is the intelligent and ambitious face of the 90s police officer, often at loggerheads with his boss. Fazio, Gallo and Galluzzo form the core of Montalbano's team, along with the incredibly stupid yet likeable Catarella, who mans the station's phones and has recently developed a penchant for the Internet.
Livia is Montalbano's Genoa-based love interest and usually appears rationally moral and, as a result, unlike her Sicilian fiancÚ. "I find that most readers, especially women, dislike Livia," Mr. Camilleri admitted in a recent interview with La Repubblica daily. "Quite frankly, I don't like her very much either. Montalbano is right to keep her at arm's-length."
The choice of making Montalbano a policeman - and therefore an "institutional" detective - was one Mr. Camilleri had to face early on in the character's life. "It was a forced decision, simply because a private investigator in Italy cannot, under any circumstances, investigate violent crimes," he says.
Another somewhat surprising authorial decision was that of limiting Montalbano to crimes which, although linked to Sicilian life, are not related to the larger Mafia crimes which tend to make national headlines.
"The problem was that I don't understand the codes of today's Mafia," Mr. Camilleri, now 75, says in his book-filled apartment of a middle-class Roman suburb. "I am not saying that the Mafia that existed when I was young in Porto Empedocle was any better or worse than that of today. But back then I knew the rules."
Like Mr. Camilleri, Montalbano understands the logic of the old Mafia - although neither of them accept its morality. What's more, both Mr. Camilleri and Montalbano appear out of their depth when faced by a more modern and brutal type of organized crime.
In the 1996 novel "Il cane di terracotta," Montalbano finds himself up against a powerful arms-smuggling syndicate from Catania. The mystery proves too big for the Vigata police chief to handle, and it remains largely unsolved. Instead, Montalbano chooses to hunt down the answers of a far more intriguing and complex crime committed in 1944.
As for the *sicilianitÓ, or Sicilian-ness, of the language - a mixture of Sicilian words and sentence structures and standard Italian - Mr. Camilleri finds himself strangely in agreement with the publishers who first turned down his novels. "I still hear from a lot of readers who say to me: 'I read your novel and didn't understand a thing,'" he says. "And I think they have a point."
Therefore, Montalbano's non-Sicilian fans have stuck with their hero in spite of the Sicilian language, not because of it.
But cracking the language code is not impossible, and the author says that he goes out of his way not to "deceive" his reader. For example, Montalbano consistently uses the word *magari to mean "as well," and he will never use it with the Italian sense of "maybe." Readers can also be certain that the character will place his verbs at the end of the sentence, as in "Montalbano, sono," rather than the more Italian "sono Montalbano."
The author's choice of language was a result of necessity rather than an attempt to create a new style. "When I wrote my first novel, I realized that I wasn't able to make Italian work," Mr. Camilleri says. "This was hardly surprising, as for us Sicilians, Italian will always be an acquired language."
But while other Sicilian writers - including Sciascia, a writer of crime fiction, and playwright Luigi Pirandello - opted to stick with Italian, Mr. Camilleri decided to search for a new voice. "I started to research the language I used at home with my parents, which was the mixture of Italian and dialect used by Sicily's *petite-bourgeoisie," he says. "I asked myself why it was that we resorted to dialect for some words, but not for others."
The answer to the problem came from Pirandello himself - who also happened to be a distant cousin of Mr. Camilleri's mother. "Pirandello said that Italian expresses the concept, while dialect expresses the feeling," he says. "And that is the logic I followed with my novels."
But while Montalbano readers have become accustomed to the language, the audience of the successful television series based on the novels will never have to deal with the problem. In the series, currently screening on Raidue on Tuesday nights, producers decided to play it safe by keeping all acting in Italian, with actor Luca Zingaretti - who plays Montalbano - often sounding more Roman than Sicilian.
But the television show does capture most of Mr. Camilleri's vision of Sicily, where crime is more often than not defeated by a conspiracy of honesty on the part of everyday people. Whether it be the cultured existence of a retired high school principal or the skeptical commitment of a police officer, there are plenty of characters prepared to place their faith in the state Montalbano represents.
"Montalbano himself may not believe in many of the institutions of the state, but he does believe in the state, and he does articulate those sentiments," Mr. Camilleri says. "But at the same time, he is smart enough not to fight windmills."