Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Italian crime fiction is as diverse as the country itself is and it’s become more and more popular as readers have been introduced to it. One of the best known authors of modern Italian crime fiction is Andrea Camilleri. A look at his work can only add to this feature, so today let’s turn the spotlight on the first of his Salvo Montalbano novels, The Shape of Water.
This novel begins in the Pasture, an area outside the Sicilian city of Vigatà. The Pasture is overseen by a powerful local gangster named Gegè Gullatto, who runs several thriving “business operations” there including drugs and prostitution. Early one morning, two men assigned to cleaning duty in the Pasture discover a dead man in an abandoned car, a man who’d obviously had a sexual encounter just before his death. The dead man turns out to be Silvio Luparello, also known as “the engineer.” Luparello was a successful businessman who had managed to stay in the background as one of his political party’s “power brokers” for quite a long time. But when the opportunity presented itself Luperallo emerged as the party leader. The discovery of his body in very compromising circumstances will get a lot of media attention and cause a great deal of unpleasantness for Luparello’s family and for the party. So Inspector Salvo Montalbano is asked to keep the investigation as quiet and brief as possible. He’s strongly encouraged in fact to “rubber stamp” the explanation that Luparello died of a heart attack and cover up the news of the notorious area where the body was found.
Montalbano begins to suspect that this wasn’t just a case of a heart attack at a very inopportune time though, and he gets grudging permission to take just a little more time and investigate just a little more thoroughly. What he finds as he gets started is that several people might have wanted Luparello to die. There are of course Luparello’s political enemies. There are also several people within Luparello’s own political party who resented his rise to power and are angling for power themselves. And then there’s Luparello’s personal life. Montalbano finds out that not only did Luparello very likely have a mistress, but his wife also knew about it. There are other family truths, too, that complicated Luparello’s life.
Montalbano is cynical enough to know that several of the people involved in this case are lying to him or at the very least not telling him everything they know. He’s also compassionate enough to feel for those who are devastated by Luparello’s death. He’s also determined to find out the truth about this case and not let powerful people get away with covering anything up. He uses that blend of compassion, cynicism and determination to find out what really happened to Silvio Luparello and in the end, we learn that this death isn’t what it appears on the surface.
This is a police procedural, so readers follow along as Montalbano and his team interview witnesses and suspects, try to make sense of forensic evidence and put the pieces of the case together. But this is a police procedural with a distinctive Sicilian flavour to it. In the Sicily of this novel, one doesn’t always accomplish things through established procedures. There’s enough corruption and bureaucratic “red tape” that cases would never be solved by going through regular channels. Instead, cases are solved by “pulling strings” and trading favours as well as by cultivating the right relationships. For instance, we find that Salvo Montalbano and Gegè Gullatto are acquaintances who trade information. Montalbano knows that it’ll be nearly impossible to stop Gullatto’s criminal activities. Gullatto knows that his business will suffer if the police are always harassing him. Besides, each respects the other. So instead, they work together in an unusual kind of way.
Gegè Gullatto is one of several “regular” characters who make their debut in this novel. Another is Nicolò Zito, a television journalist who works at Vigatà’s Free Channel. Zito is an ardent leftist who is always happy to help bring down corrupt politicians and business magnates, and he and Montalbano share information that helps Montalbano solve this mystery and helps Zito get exclusive news. Another character we meet for the first time here is Ingrid Sjostrom, a Swedish racecar driver who is married to the son of Angelo Cardamone, one of Luparello’s powerful political rivals. She’s an interesting character with her own complicated past, a free spirit and a sense of adventure. She and Montalbano begin a very interesting relationship in this novel. It’s interesting in that it’s not a love affair, really; Montalbano’s lover is Livia Burlando, whom we also meet in this novel. But it is a complex friendship that develops over time and adds an interesting layer to this series. We also meet Montlabano’s hard-working associate Fazio in this novel as well as, very briefly, Montalbano’s second-in-command Mimì Augello. Fans of this series who never got a chance to read this first novel will be glad to find out how it all began, so to speak, and how these characters are introduced. Be warned though; Sergeant Agatino Catarella, whom fans know as the well-meaning and eager but incompetent station sergeant, doesn’t make an appearance here. He doesn’t debut until The Terra Cotta Dog. Many of the characters aren’t as well-developed as they become later in the series, so regular readers may be disappointed in the apparent lack of depth of a few of them. But it is a good place to begin this series if you haven’t tried it before.
And then there’s the character of Salvo Montalbano himself. Philosophical and cynical, he is also dogged enough and hopeful enough to keep plugging away at this murder mystery despite the fact that he knows it won’t make corruption go away. Montalbano is all too well aware of how much crime, graft, and so on take place in Sicily and he’s pretty sure that just his efforts aren’t going to change that. But he is just as determined not to, if you will, give into it. He is a lover of fine food, so no novel featuring him would be complete without at least some mention of the delicious cuisine of the area.
“Montalbano was well respected at the San Calogero trattoria, not so much because he was police inspector as because he was a good customer with discerning tastes. Today they fed him some very fresh striped mullet, fried to a delicate crisp and drained on absorbent paper.”
And then a little later…
“As soon as he [Montalbano] heard the doorbell ring, he put the pasta in the water and went to the door.
‘So what’s for supper/’ asked Zito as he entered.
‘Pasta with garlic and oil, and shrimp with oil and lemon.’
There’s also a solid sense of humour that runs through this novel. A word here is in order too about Stephen Sartarelli’s excellent translation. The humour comes through very effectively and so do other nuances that wouldn’t be possible without a top-notch translation. Here, for instance, is a conversation that Montalbano has with Zito in which he chides him for not being more hard-hitting in his coverage of Luparello’s death:
“‘…you’ve refrained from dragging Luparello through the mud, as you would certainly have done in the past….the man dies of a heart attack in a kind of open-air brothel among whores, pimps and buggers, his trousers down around his ankles – it’s downright obscene – and you guys, instead of seizing the moment for all it’s worth, you all toe the line and cast a veil of mercy over how he died.’
‘We’re not really in the habit of taking advantage of such things.’
Montalbano started laughing.
‘Would you do me a favor, Nicolò? Would you and everyone else at the Free Channel please go f*** yourselves?’
Zito started laughing in turn.”
That’s when Zito tells Montalbano that the owner of eighty-percent of the network was persuaded not to let the network run the full story. That information helps Montalbano put a tiny piece of this puzzle in place.
A distinctively Sicilian murder mystery,The Shape of Water introduces an equally Sicilian detective and his team in the context of an interesting puzzle with a dash of humour. Oh, and there’s the food…. But what’s your view? Have you read The Shape of Water? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 30 April/Tuesday 1 May – The Eagle Catcher – Margaret Coel
Monday 7 May/Tuesday 8 May – Night Passage – Robert B. Parker
Monday 14 May/Tuesday 15 May – Ripley Under Ground – Patricia Highsmith