Introducing DI Garibaldi

DI Garibaldi is the non-driving, country-music loving, poetry-quoting detective who makes his fictional debut in The Final Round . How did I create him? Where did he come from?

The first thing that came was the name – Garibaldi. That’s Garibaldi as in the biscuit and as in the key figure in the unification of Italy. It was a name I hadn’t heard for some time, not since I was doing History O Level many years ago or when, as a child, I was a big fan of Garibaldi biscuits – – the currant-filled thin oblongs we used to call ‘squashed flies’.

But those days were long gone and it was a more recent event that brought the Garibaldi name back to me. It happened when my wife was researching her family tree and came across a relative born in the East End in 1861. He was called Joseph Baker – a very English name in what the records showed to be a very English family, a very cockney family. His full name, though, was far from English and not very cockney.

It was Joseph Giuseppe Garibaldi Baker.

Giuseppe Garibaldi . Why were Joseph Baker’s middle names those of the Italian nationalist hero?

Could it be that there were Italian ancestors in the family, maybe even a mysterious Italian lover? Could my wife even be related to the great Italian hero?

The truth may have turned out to be less romantic, but it was fascinating. I hadn’t realised, until I started to research, quite how big a thing Giuseppe Garibaldi was in Victorian England. He was so big that when he landed in Southampton in1864 the country was seized by what would now be described as Garibaldi-mania. The upper classes vied to host him, the London working class turned out in their thousands to greet him. Garibaldi had universal appeal. A romantic hero, a freedom fighter and a champion of the underdog, he inspired veneration and almost cult-like adoration. People adorned their walls and mantelpieces with pictures of him.  His image appeared on plates, cups and tankards.

And some people named their children after him. That’s probably why my wife’s ancestors chose to give their son the middle names Giuseppe Garibaldi.

Another big influence on the creation of Garibaldi was Inspector Montalbano. When I came upon Andrea Camilleri’s Sicilian detective I fell in love with him. And when I learned that Camilleri didn’t publish the first Montalbano novel until well into his sixties I loved him even more. I’d always wanted to write a crime novel so now that I had stopped teaching what was there to stop me? And that name. Montalbano. There was something about it – four syllables, and with that pleasing stress on the third. Just like Garibaldi. 

So maybe my detective could be a bit like Montalbano – in name , if in little else. He wouldn’t live in Sicily. He’d live in Barnes – a quiet London ‘village’ beside the Thames between Hammersmith and Richmond where I have lived for nearly thirty years. He’d have a few of my traits (a love of books and country music, an inability to drive, and a long-suffering attachment to QPR) and he would, like me, be half-Italian by descent. His other half, like me, be Irish. His complicated personal life, though, would be a far cry from my own.

Another Inspector was equally influential in the creation of DI Garbaldi. I read Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle in my youth, but it was Colin Dexter’s Oxford – based novels featuring Inspector Morse that really ignited my interest in crime fiction. Garibaldi may have as little in common with Morse as he does with Montalbano (though they do share a certain grumpy cerebrality) but the Oxford inspector made a big impact, as did his creator, Colin Dexter.

When I was teaching near Oxford I invited Dexter to speak to Sixth Formers about Morse and detective fiction. A former teacher himself, he knew how to hook an audience. He introduced his talk by saying that it would contain three deliberate mistakes and that whoever identified them at the end would win a prize. It was a surefire way to grab attention and one that I would have emulated in my own teaching career were it not for the fact that I generally made more than three mistakes in my lessons and none of them were deliberate.

Like Dexter, I’m a big crossword fan but, unlike Dexter, I’m not very good at them. Whereas he was a seven-times UK crossword champion I do a lap of honour if I manage to complete half the Guardian cryptic. Dexter was often asked whether there was a link between a love of crossword puzzles and the urge to write detective fiction but Dexter attributed the urge to something more general – ‘this business of wanting to know’.  It’s something I share with him, together with his desire to set his novels in a place he knows well and his emphasis on character.

DI Garibaldi may not have much in common with the historical figure whose name he shares. Nor may he have much in common with the fictional detectives that inspired him. But I still like to see him as the bastard son of Morse and Montalbano. An idea that really takes the biscuit.