“In many crime novels, the events seem detached from the context. I deliberately decided to smuggle in a critical commentary on my times.”
~~ Andrea Camilleri ~~
I first read Camilleri`s Inspector Montalbano series of detective novels set in Vigata, a fictional coastal town in southern Sicily, more years ago than I care to remember. What struck me immediately was that this was no ordinary police procedural, by the numbers exercise, whereby the crime is committed, investigated and solved by brilliantly intuitive detective work, despite our hero suffering from acute psychological/health/personal problems; having been at one time, abducted by aliens, suffered an unnamed childhood trauma, or seen his wife and children crushed under the propellers of an out of control speed boat while on an idyllic, get away from all the stress and worry, holiday of a lifetime in Bali. Montalbano does have problems of the romantic kind though: he`s juggling the affections of too many women who want to snuggle up close and personal at every available opportunity; whether they be long term – but absent; readily available; and intellectually challenging lovers, for whenever the need for some primal stimulation is required to kick-start his investigations back on course; or wannabe lovers of the police variety who simply want him for sexual recreation purposes. Either way, Montalbano seems well and truly screwed……As it were.
The Shape of Water is the first in a series of detective novels in which the crime is merely a convenient frame on which Camilleri waxes lyrical on the complexities and pressures of modern life in Italy over the last two decades: the transition from the lira to the euro, the fluctuations in the “business” methods of the mafia, and their social impact, the turbulent governments of Silvio Burlusconi; everything seems in a constant state of flux, without permanence; all except Montalbano`s twin preoccupations of fine food, and even finer and elegant women. And we`re back to sex, because the first book is about the discovery of a prominent big wheel`s body in his car, at a local open air “knocking shop” called “The Pastures”; where his unapologetic erection showed he had literally “died on the job.” Our hero quickly becomes suspicious when local political, business and religious heavyweights put pressure on him to close down the case as an obviously, unfortunate heart attack brought on by physical overexertion. So where was the woman who had provided him with his final earthly pleasure? What was the significance of an expensive piece of jewelry found close to the scene? Why the rush in pushing for it being the fault of a dodgy ticker? Montalbano asks for an extra 48 hours to close the case to his satisfaction, and proceeds to unravel the conspiracy of silence and vested interests surrounding the dead man like an opaque shroud.
Along the way, the Inspector muses on life, the universe and everything that`s clogging up the arteries of the Italian way of life: and it`s a grand operatic way of life, with big, sweeping emotional gestures of the variety best served with some pasta, garlic and a sprinkling of oil to tantalize the literary taste buds. Camilleri is a master of observation of a Sicily populated by weird, eccentric and genuinely interesting and believable characters; it`s world within a world, which runs on it`s own screwed up logic, like an ancient, rust bucket truck fuelled by illicit alcohol, staggering day to day into the time warp of the future`s past. In a recent novel Montalbano is dyspeptic about the Berlusconi years, describing Italy with a Dante quote as being ” a ship without a helmsman” and then qualifying it with, ” a helmsman it could do without”, before continuing with a paragraph long rant on the controversial media magnet turned prime minister. So, we get dollops of social and political comment about MP`s and senators involved with the mafia, continuing to be called honourable when they are not at all: Camilleri shows his anger in his books at Hollywood`s glamorised mythology of the mafia; there may be a deceptively jokey and congenial tone on the surface, but there are dark undertones and concerns at play here; humour and irony are an important part of Camilleri`s books, but beneath it all there is the concern over what it takes to be a good, honest and decent policeman surrounded by so much ingrained social corruption. Inspector Montalbano is a marvel to behold; he`s not averse to bending the rules, or turning a blind eye to close a case: but he`s deaf to political pressures; sometimes, his refusal to obey an order is a positive virtue; and loyalty to the vocation and virtues which made him a policeman. He doesn`t have a laboratory of white coated forensic, and criminal psychology nerds at his beck and call, just his own innate humanity, intuition and a ragtag, loveable team of bumbling elves to kick the can down the road with him. For me, Montalbano is the God of modern detective fiction.