The Shape of Water

shape of waterWeirdly, I read this book, and it has nothing to do with the current film by Guillermo del Toro! Instead, it’s an Italian mystery by Andrea Camilleri, the first of a series starring Inspector Montalbano. A few months ago, I read the first of Donna Leon’s Venetian mysteries, with Commissario Guido Brunetti, and, trying this other series, I liked this one much better.

The book opens with a couple of Sicilian garbage collectors discovering a body in a place called The Pasture, which is a kind of sleazy open-air construction zone inhabited primarily by pimps, hookers, and druggies. The garbage collectors (both of whom have advanced degrees) recognize the body immediately: it’s Silvio Luparello, wealthy construction heir and aspiring politician, caught for once with his pants literally down. The pair, hoping for a reward — maybe even a proper surveyor’s job — call Luparello’s closest friend, the attorney Rizzo, assuming he’ll tell them to move the body to a less compromising venue. Instead, he tells them to do their obvious duty and call the cops. And so we meet Inspector Montalbano.

This book, as you can tell from the opening ten pages, is gritty. It owes something to the noir tradition, where dry, dry humor meets violence, sex, and intrigue. Montalbano is caught in a web of criss-crossing authorities: the caribinieri, the higher Italian authorities, some sort of Tyrolean-hat-wearing guys who do traffic checks, the mafioso. From the beginning, he’s under heavy pressure to declare that Luparello died of natural causes, and to close the case. But a careful man like Luparello wouldn’t die of natural causes in an unnatural place like The Pasture, would he? So Montalbano gets help from all sorts of people: the man’s cool, strategic widow; a Swedish bombshell who’s been assaulted by her father-in-law; a former school friend who’s now a pimp at The Pasture; and many others. The characters are brightly alive, and a fabulous window into Sicily: corrupt, ancient, complicated. The food’s not bad either. I get tired of rhapsodic descriptions of meals in detective novels, but Montalbano enjoys what he eats, and when it’s something like pasta with sea urchin pulp sauce, I enjoy it too.

The solution to this mystery wasn’t totally unpredictable, but it was complicated enough that I didn’t see all the facets of it, either. The best part about it wasn’t the plot, though, it was the characters and the writing (beautifully translated by Stephen Sartarelli), which means I’ll want to read more of this series.

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13 Responses to The Shape of Water

  1. Yeah, these are good. One nice thing about the series is that Camilleri constantly varies the formula. One has the whole team, the next mostly just Montalbano; one is a police procedural, the next more based on “detection”; one is more social or political, another more personal. I don’t know that Camilleri ever invents anything too new, but he does not just repeat himself.

    He also has the advantage – I think of it as an advantage – of writing about a place that actually has bad crime, not Norway or Iceland.

    • Jenny says:

      I think the ones about Norway and Iceland all devolve into writing about the detectives’ inner demons, which is sometimes less satisfying than reading about detecting a crime that happened outside the detective.

      Nice to hear from you. I think Lyon is one of the loveliest places I’ve been in France (Strasbourg is my favorite.) Lucky you.

  2. Interesting! I’ve never read a translated mystery (actually I’ve read few translated books period.) I’ll have to keep this series in mind.

  3. Bron says:

    oooh I’ve watched a bit of the Montalbano tv series, but had no idea it was based on a book series!

  4. Mary Beth says:

    I had tried this book out a few years ago, but had trouble staying with it. I had watched a good number of the Montalbanno TV series (recently we got some of the spin-off, Young Montalbano) and I think that clouded my reading. I will try it again. Did you not like Donna Leon’s mysteries? I ask because I read one – I think the first and it didn’t capture me.

  5. I need to read a Montalbano mystery. I’ve read enough about them over the years, and I adore mystery. Thanks for the nudge!

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