I can never decide whether I'm happy to come across an already well-established author, particularly one writing crime novels, or not. The thing about getting in on the ground level, so to speak, of an author's work is being able to read the books as they're published (though sadly with books in translation they are often translated out of order). Of course once you've read the book that's it until the author writes another. Andrea Camilleri's The Shape of Water is the first in a long running detective series set in the fictional Sicilian seaside town of Vigàta. Twelve books have been published with a thirteenth due out this fall in the US. The upside, however, to discovering a good author like Camilleri is having so many more books to look forward to reading and at leisure, and if the first is anything to go by these will be quick entertaining reads yet with a certain flair that is both culturally rich and with an understated humor.
Inspector Salvo Montalbano has quite a following in his native Italy as well as abroad. My first impression was that he reminded me just a touch of Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret (though only a touch) as well as of another recent discovery Domingo Villar's Inspector Leo Caldas. Like Maigret he is cool, calm and collected and like Caldas he has an appreciation for a good meal. Montalbano is smart, even tempered and compassionate. He's also well respected by the citizens of Vigàta. You get a sense that he's one of the 'good guys' even if he doesn't always do things entirely by the book. He's the sort of man who hires a woman to cook and clean for him whose two sons have been jailed thanks to Montalbano even though his girlfriend is wary of the situation.
"The previous July, when she had come to Vigàta to spend two weeks with him, Livia, on hearing this story became terrified."
"Are you insane? One of these days that woman will take revenge and poison your soup!"
"Take revenge for what?"
"For having arrested her son!"
"Is that my fault? Adelina's well aware it's not my fault if her son was stupid enough to get caught. I played fair, didn't use any tricks or traps to arrest him. It was all on the up-and-up."
"I don't give a damn about your contorted way of thinking. You have to give rid of her."
"But if I fire her, who's going to keep house for me, do my laundry, iron my clothes, and make dinner?"
"You'll find somebody else!"
"There you're wrong. I'll never find a woman as good as Adelina."
Livia, perhaps not surprisingly, is not from Sicily. Life is different there. One hot summer morning two trash collectors, rather "ecological agents" find the body of a man in an area of Vigàta known as the "Pasture". The Pasture is a seedy area where couples congregate to participate in amorous adventures. It's also a high traffic area for prostitutes. Silvio Luparello is found rather ignominiously in his parked car with his pants down around his knees, but has a crime been committed? The well known politician's body shows no signs of a violent struggle and autopsy results confirm death due to a heart attack. Along with the body an expensive diamond necklace was found near the car, but picked up and secreted away by one of the trash collectors. Montalbano's superiors pressure him to close the case, which seems only an unfortunate accident, but things don't quite add up so he continues his investigation.
When a once good friend of Luparello's joins up with his political rival winning the election Luparello had set his sights on, Montalbano senses something fishy, but he has no evidence to support his claims. He has only the same politician asking for help finding a missing necklace that his Swedish daughter-in-law lost, which puts her in a comprising situation he'd like hushed up. It appears that Luparello was one to "give in to his vices" and had a small cottage hideaway for his very discreet affairs. One woman seems to be the connection between the various sides of Silvio Luparello, but is everything just a little too pat? Is she being framed, and why?
This is not a typical detective novel, particularly when the dead man doesn't even seem to have been murdered. Of course it all depends on how you look at guilt and what motivates people to do the things they do--crime takes on more than one face.
I enjoyed my first foray into the world of Inspector Montalbano--not just for the puzzle but for being introduced to an interesting cast of characters and even more to an intriguing place both beautiful for its scenery and shocking for the violence. Even the minor characters are interesting. The ecological agents are educated men dreaming of better lives and jobs. The wife of the victim is smart and perceptive with a dry wit. Montalbano's childhood friend, Gegè, is a pimp with street savvy and an understanding of the seamier side of life. Of course the most interesting character of all is Montalbano himself.
The Shape of Water is translated quite smoothly from Italian by Stephen Sartarelli. It's a case of the prose not getting in the way of the story. Sartarelli also includes helpful notes on the text explaining cultural references and nuances, which add to the story. I'd moved on in my reading to mainland Italy, to the Southern coast with Gianrico Carofiglio's Involuntary Witness, but I'm afraid am approaching library due date means a little detour to Florence and Magdalen Nabb's The Marshal and the Englishman is next up on my literary (crime) tour of Italy.