Weirdly, 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.