This was a fast-moving thriller set in a fictional Sicilian town. The author is Italian, and his hero is a local police chief, Salvo Montalbano. Unlike other crime fiction that is set in Italy but written by foreigners, this stuff is more down to earth and skips a lot of the pretty description and social observation. That is not to say that there is no social observation here – what would be the point of writing something set in Italy without it? But Camilleri, being a local, gets to the point faster and uses a lot of cynical humor and quick dialogue. The style reminded me a little of Simenon, although the characters and situations are different.
The story begins quickly, with the discovery of a leading politician’s corpse, sitting in a car in a sleazy part of town frequented by whores and their customers. Although it is pretty strange that he should be found dead in such a place, pressure is immediately applied to the Montalbano to quickly wrap up the investigation. Feeling that he is being used, this cop instead begins to investigate. Montalbano is pretty much a classic paperback detective, but without the vices. He is tough and rational, but primarily a decent man who tries hard to do the right thing. Camilleri paints a picture of a Sicily that is rife with corruption of all kinds – financial, political, sexual – especially sexual – and a lot of this is taken for granted by everybody. This is, I suppose, a cliche about Southern Italy, but in this case it is employed by an Italian writer.
Montalbano begins to investigate, and discovers that, not surprisingly, things are not what they seem. But neither do they turn out to be the usual type of thing one would expect either. The pace is quick, and things are interesting and hard to puzzle out up thru the ending. The ending is a surprise too – a double ending, in which Montalbano, the only one who seems to have a clue as to what really happened (with one exception), ends up with two plausible explanations for the politician’s death – and no arrests appear to be imminent.
Also coming into the picture are the dead man’s political rival, his party boy son, and the son’s Swedish blonde bombshell wife, who is apparently screwing any man who gets within a few feet of her. This was the first book in a series, and it seems like the author is trying to set up a series. There are an awful lot of characters that pop up in such short book, and I would bet that they reappear in other tales. Camilleri is no poetic prosemaster, but this was a solid, taut, well-designed page-turner with a fair amount of humor to balance out the violence.
This is very cerebral detecting, even given the Maigret-like texture of the narrative. Fans of rough-and-tumble may be disappointed. Those who flinch at the social critique of the South of Italy may find the portrayal of Sicilians to be a bit problematic too.
But I think these objections are misplaced. The real action in this book is on the social and personal level. It is precisely the quality of thought that the ever-humane Montalbano brings to the proceedings that make them exciting. More importantly, his dim-eyed view of Sicilan society and mores is an invitation to reflect on its similarities to our own. Sicily here is not a stand-in for some uncivilized ‘other’. It’s handled with a sympathy that makes it a proxy for all of us.