The seal of the best foreign crime writing is as much the stylish prose as the unfamiliar settings. When both ingredients are presented with the expertise shown by Andrea Camilleri, the result is immensely satisfying.
Camilleri’s Sicilian copper Salvo Montalbano is now a familiar figure: a laser-sharp mind, and a gourmet whose mind constantly strays to food. We know his stamping-ground: the beautiful, sleepy territory of Vigata, languishing in the heat. In August Heat, it is omnipresent and crushing.
The novel starts with a sleight of hand, cleverly misdirecting the reader. Montalbano is dragooned into a house search for the brattish child of friends. There is no place the child could have hidden – until Montalbano discovers a hole in the ground that leads to a hidden subterranean floor. The child is there, alive. But also in the sunless room is a trunk, containing the naked body of a murdered girl.
All this is masterfully handled. But there are caveats. The author assumes that we’ll know Montalbano’s team of coppers and offers not a jot of characterisation (a problem for new readers). No characterisation, that is, apart from Montalbano’s clownish assistant, Catarella. How do you translate a character who uses broad Sicilian argot? Does a translator (here, the admirable Stephen Sartarelli) simply render it into pidgin English? The ungainly compromises are unsatisfactory ("he’s a one wherats is got a shoe store") and suggest that the idiosyncrasies of the language should be toned down in the translation process.
These are minor quibbles, with the customary sardonic rendering of Camilleri’s epicurean inspector as pleasurable as ever. And the author is always a political novelist; he has Montalbano admiring the Swedish writers Sjowall and Wahloo (without naming them), and their "ferocious and justified attack" on the government. Such spleen is in Camilleri’s novel, too; he takes a thrust at a "helmsman" whom Italy "would have been better off without".
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