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The Shape of Water

Andrea Camilleri

Bestselling Italian author Andrea Camilleri - one of the Hound's greatest living crime writers - has built a massive international following for his sardonic Sicilian mysteries featuring a listless, dejected, nonconformist protagonist who somehow always accomplishes his duty in spite of himself. The Shape of Water is his first Inspector Salvo Montalbano adventure to be translated into English.


When a local politician is found dead in his car, half naked, in a seedy neighborhood known for prostitution and drug trafficking, it's assumed that he died of natural causes in the middle of a sexual escapade. Hoping to avoid an embarrassing situation, Montalbano's superiors expect him to close the case quickly. But the inspector senses that not all is as it seems and determinedly launches a full investigation.While pursuing the case, Montalbano encounters a number of bizarre and comical characters, from an elderly schoolteacher driven mad by his 80-year-old wife's "cheating" to a former classmate who's now an intellectual pimp. The inspector is drawn into the shadowy world of Sicilian politics as he discovers affiliations made between bureaucratic adversaries, meets with promiscuous beauties, and finds corruption that might even reach into the Church. He takes it all with the accepting attitude that one needs to survive in an often bleak and impoverished part of the world.

This novel begins in the Pasture, an area outside the Sicilian city of Vigatà. The Pasture is overseen by a powerful local gangster named Gegè Gullatto, who runs several thriving “business operations” there including drugs and prostitution. Early one morning, two men assigned to cleaning duty in the Pasture discover a dead man in an abandoned car, a man who’d obviously had a sexual encounter just before his death. The dead man turns out to be Silvio Luparello, also known as “the engineer.” Luparello was a successful businessman who had managed to stay in the background as one of his political party’s “power brokers” for quite a long time. But when the opportunity presented itself Luperallo emerged as the party leader. The discovery of his body in very compromising circumstances will get a lot of media attention and cause a great deal of unpleasantness for Luparello’s family and for the party. So Inspector Salvo Montalbano is asked to keep the investigation as quiet and brief as possible. He’s strongly encouraged in fact to “rubber stamp” the explanation that Luparello died of a heart attack and cover up the news of the notorious area where the body was found.

Montalbano begins to suspect that this wasn’t just a case of a heart attack at a very inopportune time though, and he gets grudging permission to take just a little more time and investigate just a little more thoroughly. What he finds as he gets started is that several people might have wanted Luparello to die.

Fans of this series who never got a chance to read this first novel will be glad to find out how it all began, so to speak, and how many of the characters are introduced. Be warned though; Sergeant Agatino Catarella, whom fans know as the well-meaning and eager but incompetent station sergeant, doesn’t make an appearance here. He doesn’t debut until The Terra Cotta Dog. Many of the characters aren’t as well-developed as they become later in the series, so regular readers may be disappointed in the apparent lack of depth of a few of them. But it is a good place to begin this series if you haven’t tried it before.

And then there’s the character of Salvo Montalbano himself. Philosophical and cynical, he is also dogged enough and hopeful enough to keep plugging away at this murder mystery despite the fact that he knows it won’t make corruption go away. Montalbano is all too well aware of how much crime, graft, and so on take place in Sicily and he’s pretty sure that just his efforts aren’t going to change that. But he is just as determined not to, if you will, give into it. He is a lover of fine food, so no novel featuring him would be complete without at least some mention of the delicious cuisine of the area. There’s also a solid sense of humour that runs through this novel. A word here is in order too about Stephen Sartarelli’s excellent translation. The humour comes through very effectively and so do other nuances that wouldn’t be possible without a top-notch translation.

A distinctively Sicilian murder mystery, The Shape of Water introduces an equally Sicilian detective and his team in the context of an interesting puzzle with a dash of humour. Oh, and there’s the food…

Review by Margot Kinberg, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist

About Andrea Camilleri:

Originally from Porto Empedocle, Sicily, Camilleri began studies at the Faculty of Literature in 1944, without concluding them, meanwhile publishing poems and short stories. Around this time he joined the Italian Communist Party.

From 1948 to 1950 Camilleri studied stage and film direction at the Silvio D'Amico Academy of Dramatic Arts, and began to take on work as a director and screenwriter, directing especially plays by Pirandello and Beckett. As a matter of fact, his parents knew Pirandello and were even distant friends, as he tells in his essay on Pirandello "Biography of the changed son". His most famous works, the Montalbano series show many pirandellian elements.

In 1994 Camilleri published the first in a long series of novels: La forma dell'Acqua (The Shape of Water) featured the character of Inspector Montalbano, a fractious Sicilian detective in the police force of Vigàta, an imaginary Sicilian town. The series is written in Italian but with a substantial sprinkling of Sicilian phrases and grammar. The name Montalbano is an homage to the Spanish writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán; the similarities between Montalban's Pepe Carvalho and Camilleri's fictional detective are remarkable. Both writers make great play of their protagonists' gastronomic preferences.

This feature provides an interesting quirk which has become something of a fad among his readership even in mainland Italy. The TV adaptation of Montalbano's adventures, starring the perfectly-cast Luca Zingaretti, further increased Camilleri's popularity to such a point that in 2003 Camilleri's home town, Porto Empedocle - on which Vigàta is modelled - took the extraordinary step of changing its official denomination to that of Porto Empedocle Vigàta, no doubt with an eye to capitalising on the tourism possibilities thrown up by the author's work.

In 1998 Camilleri won the Nino Martoglio International Book Award.


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