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Inspector Salvo Montalbano has got a lot on his plate. Following the murder of a young man in front of his apartment, two elderly people from the same block of flats are reported missing. Not only that, but the head of the local mafia wants a favour from him and one of his subordinates is considering a transfer to another city. Although there is nothing to show that the murder and the disappearance of the elderly people are connected, the more Montalbano looks into it, the more it seems likely. The elderly couple were not seen again after a visit to the ancient site of Tindari - did their murderer intercept them on their way back home? If so, who is holding them and why? And what is the connection with the dead young man? Montalbano and his team must race against time to solve the cases, while dealing with the brutal Mafia at the same time.
There has been a surge in translations of European crime fiction over the last five years, which has given me the opportunity to read a selection of work that I wouldn't usually be able to understand. Andrea Camilleri is one of the better known authors to have hit Britain's bookshops, with works such as The Shape of Water and The Terracotta Dog. Based in a small town in Sicily, the books are full of the colourful flavour of the area - including the less wholesome side.
Salvo Montalbano is the chief of a small team of detectives, amongst whom he commands great respect. He is a typical detective in that he is a bit of a loner, but he does have a more human side than some - he does at least have a girlfriend, even if they have to carry out their relationship long distance. Montalbano can have a rather facetious manner, particularly when dealing with his superiors, which can become rather trying after a while. He certainly could be a little more rounded as a character - I feel I know a lot about him because I have read other books in the series, but for those reading this as a stand-alone, there is very little in the way of characterisation. The story is told very much from the perspective of Montalbano, so we found out precious little about the private lives of his subordinates, but this didn't particularly bother me.
I can't really fault the story. It starts with a bang, and apart from a few brief lulls, gallops along at a great pace until the final page. It is not a serious piece of crime fiction (apart from the murders, of course!) - there are a few comic moments, which lightens the tone of the book and makes it a very easy read. Montalbano does make some amazing leaps that lead him to the solutions of his investigations, but then this is to be expected in a work of crime fiction.
Descriptions of everyday life in Sicily are littered all over the book, particularly with regard to food. Montalbano sees himself as a bit of a gourmet, so the dishes he eats are described in great detail. Most of it is seafood, which makes it slightly less tempting for me, but the descriptions are good nevertheless. An insight into the local Mafia structure is also interesting, but without being too cliche ridden.
The one thing that lets this book down for me is the translation. It is apparently written in the Sicilian dialect, which I imagine is fairly difficult to translate. However, even bearing this in mind, the translator, Stephen Sartarelli, has given us a translation which does not seem to flow well to me. It is very difficult to explain exactly what the problem is - there is certainly nothing wrong with either the grammar or the words he uses, but somehow, the translation just doesn't quite hang together and at times I found it nothing short of annoying. I suspect a great deal of sarcasm was used in the original language; however, this doesn't always translate through. This is a great pity, because it really made what is a good book into a mediocre one. I like the author's work and will make an effort to read more of it, but I can see that many would be put off by this.
I would really like to give this book four stars, based on the story, but because of the translation, I'm only giving it three. However, I do still recommend the book - the story is strong enough to take away from the pain of the translation at least some of the time. I do hope that a different translator is found for future translations of work by this author.
The book is available from play.com for £3.99. Published by Pan Macmillan, it has 320 pages. ISBN: 9780330493031