The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri

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The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: The first novel in the Salvo Montalbano series sees the Inspector investigating a death from natural causes in suspicious circumstances. It's slow to get going but a good plot with plenty of social commentary. Worth reading, but probably better borrowed from the library.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: February 2004
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 0330492861

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I have a penchant for Italian detectives. My favourite (when Michael Dibdin is on his best form) is Aurelio Zen, closely followed by Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti. Leon's not quite up to the standard of Dibdin at his best, but she's more consistent. Recently I've taken to reading crime novels in translation and my latest discovery is Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Salvo Montalbano. "The Shape of Water" is the first book in the series.

A prominent local politician, Silvio Luparello, is found dead in his car. He died from natural causes, which, as the book says, is refreshingly unusual for Sicily, but his car is on the Pasture. Goats used to graze here but now it's an area frequented by drug dealers and prostitutes of every type and it would seem that Luparello was enjoying what they had to offer. The story is hushed up as far as possible and there's pressure on Montalbano from the local police chief, a judge and a bishop to close the case. Montalbano is reluctant to do so as he suspects that all is not as it appears.

It's a good story, neatly highlighting the corruption endemic in Italian politics at all levels at the time the story was written. Although slow to start, once it gets into its stride the plot moves along at a swift pace. Camilleri is Sicilian and there's a real depth of inside knowledge behind the story of how things really work. The plotting is neat and tidy and all the clues are there. I had worked out some of what happened, but I hadn't quite made all the links.

The characterisation is not up to the standard of the plot. Montalbano himself is quite well done. He's an honourable man, interested only in justice but who's not above being insensitive or playing God when the occasion arises. However, some of the subsidiary characters are very sketchily drawn and I was still having difficulty distinguishing one from the other quite late in the story. The politicians all blended into one and the other police officers were just names. One or two of the women in the story came across well, particularly Luparello's widow.

One reason for the sketchy characterisation could be that this is a relatively short story. There are 244 pages of text to the story but the printing has been double-spaced. This makes for very comfortable reading but I was left with a feeling of having been conned - despite not having bought the book for its length or size. I read the book in less than three hours.

The story is set in the fictional town of Vigatá in Montelusa province, which seems to have been based on the author's native town of Porto Empedocle in Agrigento. Camilleri's at great pains to point out that his fictional characters are just that, but Sicily being what it is and the Mafia always capable of sinking to new depths what happens does seem very true-to-life. I do like the fact that Camilleri has no empathy with the Mafia and doesn't portray them in a sympathetic light. I lost patience with Michael's Dibdin's Blood Rain when the Mafiosi were portrayed as amiable buffoons.

The book is a translation from the original Italian by Stephen Sartarelli and he produces a good text although I occasionally found his sentence construction hard to follow. Having said that, he's particularly good with the dialogue, which can be coarse at times, but gives a real feeling of authenticity. The humour in the book is subtle and Sartarelli excels here, which is commendable, particularly where word-play is concerned as this is always difficult to translate well.

There was one point when I felt very cross with Mr Sartarelli. In the course of reading the book I Googled various words and phrases which I didn't understand, with variable results. Sicilchim didn't get a result at all. Then I found, right at the end of the book, with no prior reference which I could find, several pages of notes. Sicilchim is apparently shorthand for Sicilia Chemica, or Sicilian Chemicals. I'd have liked to have these notes as footnotes on the individual pages.

If you like police-procedural novels I think you'll like this book. There are some short-comings but I'll certainly be looking out for the later novels in the series, The Terracotta Dog and The Snack Thief. If you are looking for other similar novels set in Sicily then you might like to read Michael Dibdin's Blood Rain, although this is not one of the best in the Zen series. A better Aurelio Zen novel would be Dead Lagoon, which is set in Venice. You might also like Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti novels. I particularly enjoyed Fatal Remedies.

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Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano Books in Chronological Order


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