According to Wikipedia, Andrea Camilleri wrote his first novel (The Way Things Go) in 1978 at the age of 53. A second followed two years later — neither attracted much attention so he took a 12 year break. A bestseller (The Hunting Season) was published in 1992 but Camilleri didn’t really find his “voice” — and most famous character — until two years later, when he introduced Inspector Montalbano to the world with this novel. The Wikipedia entry lists 16 Montalbano novels but there are 18 episodes of the television series, so I think it is a fair assumption that a couple more exist. Not bad for an author who didn’t find that signature character until he was approaching his 70th birthday.
This is a double review of both the Italian television show and the initial book in the series. Guy Savage put Mrs. KfC and I onto the video Montalbano some months back — Guy knows his noir (and detectives) and he recommended the Italian series in a comment. The show has been a hit for decades (Camilleri’s hometown of Porto Empedocle actually changed its name to Porto Empedocle Vigata in honor of the fictional Sicilian town he created for the series) but the North American DVDs — in Italian, with English subtitles — only became available last year. It is fair to say that we became instant, enthusiastic fans; we not only have watched all 18 episodes, we are well into a second viewing.
While I am a fan of English and European detective shows, I don’t normally follow that up with a reading of the books they are based on, but curiosity about Camilleri did get the better of me. According to his Wikipedia entry, Camilleri describes Montalbano as “a serial killer of characters”, meaning that “he has developed a life of his own and demands great attention from his author, to the demise of other potential books and different personages”. The Montalbano stories may be dark, but the sense of humor reflected in that comment is ever present.
While The Shape of Water was the first Inspector Montalbano book, it is actually episode four in the television series — the story is complex enough that the producers wisely opted for some simpler episodes to establish the cast of continuing characters before tackling this one. The story opens with two “ecological agents” (that would be garbage collectors) cleaning up “the Pasture”:
Until recently the Pasture had represented, for those who still went under the undignified name of garbage collectors, a cakewalk of a job: amid the scraps of paper, plastic bags, cans of beer and Coca-Cola, and shit piles barely covered up or left out in the open air, now and then a used condom would appear, and it would set one thinking, provided one had the desire and imagination to do so, about the details of that encounter. For a good year now, however, the occasional condom had turned into an ocean, a carpet of condoms, ever since a certain minister with a dark, taciturn face worthy of a Lombroso diagram had fished deep into his mind, which was even darker and more mysterious than his face, and come up with an idea he thought would solve all the South’s law-and-order problems.
Gegè [an old schoolmate of Montalbano's] , in short, succeeded in opening a specialized market of fresh meat and many and sundry drugs, all light, at the Pasture. Most of the meat came from the former Eastern Bloc countries, now free at last of the Communist yoke which, as everyone knows, had denied all personal, human dignity; now, between the Pasture’s bushes and sandy shore, come nightfall, that reconquered dignity shone again in all its magnificence. But there was also no lack of Third World women, transvestites, transsexuals, Neapolitan faggots, Brazilian viados — something for every taste, a feast, an embarrassment of riches. And business flourished, to the great satisfaction of the soldiers, Gegè, and those who, for a proper cut of the proceeds, had granted Gegè permission to operate.
On this day, however, the “ecological agents” discover something far different than the normal garbage: a luxury vehicle with the body of one Luparello, who only days earlier was named to the highest political office in the district. The garbagemen aren’t dumb — rather than calling the police, they call the lawyer Rizzo, known to all as the power behind the political throne. They can’t believe it when Rizzo summarily dismisses them.
With that, Camilleri (and Montalbano) are on their way. Luparello may have died of a heart attack but the Inspector has concerns about just why a person of such prominence (and integrity) would be visiting the Pasture for sex. As the novel unfolds, we will meet duelling Mafia gangs, a stunning Swedish rally car driver, a host of corrupt politicians (and judges) and some very decent, but very poor, people who are oppressed by all of that power.
That should be enough to whet your interest — the book is only 218 pages, proof positive that Camilleri moves complicated plot along at a breakneck pace.
I have to say, however, that the book does read like a screenplay and, alas, is not quite up to the television show. Before he started writing, Camilleri was in the television business and it shows. The novel supplies all the elements of the story but the Sicilian landscape and some wonderful acting not just by Luca Zingaretti who plays Montalbano but also by a very strong supporting cast have to be seen to be fully appreciated.
I did order four Montalbano books and will probably get to the other three at some point. I cannot be too enthusiastic about the television show, and the novel did bring back memories of it, but as entertaining as the novel was, it just isn’t up to the video version. Camilleri does deserve full marks for creating such an amazing “serial killer of a character”.
One final tease, however, in the form of an explanation for the title of the novel. It comes from Luparello’s widow:
“I’m not Sicilian; I was born in Grosseto and came to Montelusa when my father was made prefect here. We owned a small piece of land and a house on the slopes of the Amiata and used to spend our summers there. I had a little friend, a peasant boy, who was younger than me. I was about ten. One day I saw that my friend had put a bowl, a cup, a teapot, and a square milk carton on the edge of a well, had filled them all with water, and was looking at them attentively.
“‘What are you doing?’ I asked him. And he answered me with a question in turn.
“‘What shape is water?’
“‘Water doesn’t have any shape!’ I said, laughing. ‘It takes the shape you give it.’
At that moment the door to the library opened, and an angel appeared.