Introducing Sicily and Inspector Montalvano

What is the shape of water? Surely, it is whatever shape you give it—and so the police inspector describes the evidence in this deceptive murder mystery set in modern Sicily.

A wealthy and influential engineer is discovered dead in his BMW that is parked on a strip of beach used nightly by prostitutes. Inspector Montalbano is called to the beach and senses from his years of experience that things are not as they seem and he must use all his considerable intelligence to unravel and solve the crime. But first, what is the crime?

I have just read The Shape of Water, which is the first episode of the inspector Montalbano series by Italian writer Andrea Camilleri. Like all the Montalbano stories it is set in and around an imaginary town Vigàta in Sicily. The Montalbano stories give author Camilleri the chance to describe for us the complex life of modern Sicily and the role of the municipal police in balancing the powerful criminal elements at play on the island.

As the novel opens, a group of men are standing about the courtyard of the trash collection company, Splendor. The men are waiting for their daily assignments. The translator Stephen Sartarelli sets the scene for us:

“No light of daybreak filtered yet into the courtyard of Splendor, the company under government contract to collect trash in the town of Vigàta. A low, dense mass of clouds completely covered the sky as though a great grey tarp had been drawn from one corner to another. Not a single leaf fluttered. The sirocco [East wind] was late to rise from its leaden sleep yet people already struggled to exchange a few words. The foreman, before assigning the areas to be cleaned, announced that this day, and for some days to come [two men] would be absent, excused from work. More than excused, they’d been arrested: the previous evening they’d attempted to rob a supermarket.”

The arrests give the unemployed Pinto and Saro an opportunity to work. They are assigned to an area known as the Pasture, which happens to be an abandoned stretch of beach used as an outdoor brothel by local prostitutes. The beach and parking lot will be littered with the detritus of the nights activity. It’s not pleasant work for the two new “ecological agents”.

Pinto begins the cleanup from the beach, while Saro starts in the beach parking lot that once served a nearby factory that is now abandoned and empty. The two agents each make a startling discovery as they pick up trash. Saro finds a shiny pendant on a gold chain, which he stuffs into his pocket; Pinto, comes across an abandoned BMW and discovers the body of a prominent engineer. The agents call the engineer’s lawyer and then head into town to find Inspector Salvo Montalbano of the Vigàta police. Saro does not tell Pinto or the inspector about the pendant.

Is the pendant valuable, and will that complicate Saro’s life? You can bet on that. Will the engineer’s death cause complications for Inspector Montalbano? You can bet on that also. Will justice be served in the end? Well, you can bet on that also, but you might have to adjust your ideas of justice since this is, after all, Sicily.

The Shape of Water (La forma dell’acqua) was translated for English audiences in 2002. The novel has been filmed for an episode a popular Italian TV series based on the inspector. The TV episode was almost entirely shot in Sampieri. Camilleri himself grew up in the Sicilian town of Porto Empedocle on the SW coast of the island, and this is the inspiration for Vigàta.

Stephen Sartarelli, does a creditable job, translated the novel from the original Italian into English. I especially liked his cultural notes in the appendix. This novel is an entertaining and very readable introduction to Camilleri’s fictional Sicily, and the translator can take credit for a measure of this success.

The Montalvano mystery series introduces a new and unique police inspector: he is one who prefers not to use his pistol and his sense of justice sometimes overwhelms his duty under the law. I think that Montalvano is a welcome addition to the international police procedural scene that is today so immersed in violence.

Day 47: The Shape of Water (Andrea Camilleri) (1994).

About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure; Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical; Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked.
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