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Commissario Salvo Montalbano has got a long-term, long-distance lady-friend, Livia. He lives in the south of Sicily, she in Genoa, 1440 km to the north. One summer he has to work and she decides to come to Sicily with a friend, her husband and their three-year-old son so that she's got company when Montalbano can't spend time with her. She asks him to look for a summer house for her friends, he finds a pretty, free-standing one with the beach just below, everything should be fine.
One day the little boy disappears. He's fallen into an opening under the house, close inspection reveals that the house has really two storeys, not only the one that can be seen. The first was built and then covered with soil because it's illegal to build two-storey houses there. The owner had intended to wait for an amnesty concerning this breach of law and then uncover the apartment on the ground floor. Montalbano finds the boy and when he looks more closely round the underground rooms, he discovers a big chest with a dead girl in it. She must have lain there for abut six years. Not surprisingly, Livia and her friends leave at once and Montalbano has another case to solve. As he's a grumpy and factious man by nature and more often than not his encounters with Livia end in arguments, he's not too unhappy to be alone again.
The crime follows an age-old pattern - there aren't too many reasons why murders are committed - but it's firmly embedded in Sicilian reality. This begins with the hidden apartment which is nothing special in Sicily and goes on with the way people react when questioned. Background info on a suspect reveals a typical Sicilian career with Mafia connections. The inspector knows who's who in his town, who to molest for answers, who not to touch with a barge pole. Camilleri's thrillers with Montalbano are always also social criticism on the political and social conditions in present-day Sicily without being preachy, though. I've heard of Sicilians who're happy with his descriptions of their island, its history, its problems, its people, its beauty and its food. Camilleri was born in Porto Empedocle in the south of Sicily in 1925. He's lived in Rome for decades as a theatre director and screen writer but hasn't forgotten the special feel of his home island.
Unfortunately, I can't read Italian literature, but even if I could, I'd have problems understanding the Montalbano thrillers, as do non-Sicilian Italian readers. On the net one can find long lists of Sicilian expressions used in the Montalbano thrillers translated into standard Italian. I don't know why Camilleri stresses the local colour so much. Obviously, his Italian readers don't mind and the Sicilians love him for it.
I've read three or four books of the series (twelve books up to now) in German, August Heat is the first English translation I've read. Except for one sentence that doesn't make sense to me, it seems OK. There's one insurmountable problem for all translators (the series has been translated into nine languages): Montalbano always works together with the same personnel, one colleague is a certain Catarella, the stupidest policeman imaginable. His stupidity isn't only obvious in his actions but also in his way of talking. How to translate Sicilian dialect interspersed with grammar blunders and wrong Italian terms? Sicilian readers will laugh their heads off, a translation into whatever language can only look stupid but in a different way than the policeman.
When a writer decides to write a series, they must think thoroughly through what kind of protagonist to create. He or she must be able to carry several stories after all. I think it was a wise move to make Montalbano a bachelor with a distant lady-friend. On the one hand we see that he likes women and women like him, but because he sees his Livia only occasionally, he isn't bound by family ties and the writer doesn't have to care for his domestic life. And should it be convenient for the story that he get a bit closer to the opposite sex than a family man in Sicily should, no harm is done.
His way of life also leaves room for the elaborate description of food (the German editions have a list of all recipes used in the story at the end). Montalbano either eats what his charwoman prepares for him or what he gets in his favourite trattoria. I can't read about the Sicilian specialities without salivating.
It is the secret of a good series to give the readers what they expect but always in slight variations in order not to bore them. The variation here is the realistic description of heat. I wouldn't advise anyone from Central or Northern Europe to read this book in Sicily or any other hot location in summer, it may lead to a heat stroke. I read it during some very cold days in December and felt like turning the heating down! Try to imagine walking on asphalt with your shoes getting stuck in the soft stuff, or being bathed in sweat after just walking from your car parked in front of the building to the door of your office which has no air conditioning and no fan, either.
I suspect that Camilleri wrote the book during the summer months and that the editor worked on it also during a heat wave because there's a loose end which doesn't tie up. A young man disappears during a train ride from Sicily to Cologne in Germany, many years later his remains are found beside the track near his destination. We never learn what happened. As falling out of the door is not the usual way of getting off a train in Germany, I would have liked the author to give an explanation. Maybe he had thought of one, but it must have sizzled away in the heat.
I can recommend the book for thriller fans who've been to Sicily or who intend to go there and as a (weak) ersatz for those who can't go there.