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There seems to have been a spate of translations of foreign crime fiction since the beginning of the century, which as far as I'm concerned is a great thing. I've taken to going to my local library and picking names of foreign authors at random; this time, I came home with this book, originally published in 1994, by Andrea Camilleri, of whose name I've vaguely heard. The story is set in Sicily, which is a new setting for me. I particularly enjoy reading police procedurals set in other countries; it is refreshing to see how different police forces work - at least in fiction.
Andrea Camilleri is one of Italy's most famous modern writers. He lives in Italy. His books have now been translated into nine languages and have reached the bestseller lists in Italy and Germany. All the books from the Inspector Montalbano series are being translated into English.
Local politician Silvio Luparello is found dead in a dodgy part of Sicily, known for prostitutes and drug users. He is discovered half-dressed, with semen stains. Surprisingly (for Sicily), it is later found that he suffered from heart disease and had died a natural death. However, Inspector Montalbano and Luparello's wife are suspicious; how can a man so careful of his reputation have put himself in a situation which could have ruined his career had he been caught alive?
Montalbano gets on the case and in the course of his investigation, finds that the refuse collectors who found the body picked up a valuable necklace from near the scene. The necklace, worth a small fortune, belongs to the daughter-in-law of Luparello's successor. What was she doing in the vicinity if she didn't have anything to do with Luparello's death?
Inspector Montalbano is a refreshing change from the usual 'by the book' detectives. He knows how to play the corrupt nature of Sicilian society; one of his main informers is a pimp/drug dealer with whom he used to go to school. On more than one occasion, he deliberately gets rid of the evidence that could implicate certain suspects that he doesn't believe guilty. He is attractive and a bit of a lady's man - he has a steady girlfriend with whom he has a long distance relationship, but also has to fight off the advances of the beautiful Anna, an officer in the carbinieri (the national police force, separate from local police forces) and the stunning Ingrid, one of the suspects. He doesn't go out of his way to chase women though - they seem to flock to him rather than the other way around! All in all, he had a bit more about him than the usual fictional detectives and I look forward to getting to know him better.
Other characters, although not playing particularly important roles, are well-portrayed, from the refuse collector with the sick son to Luparello's rather effeminate nephew. The only problem was the names: I had to keep back-checking to remind myself who was who because I couldn't get my head around the Italian names.
I enjoyed the book very much. It wasn't that gripping a plot - what stood out for me was Montalbano and the insight into the local Mafia - but it was interesting enough to keep me happy. It was very short; but this was an advantage. Too many works of crime fiction are made so complicated and are stretched out for so long that I begin to lose interest, so this made a pleasant change.
The main disadvantage was that the translation, by Stephen Sartarelli, was a little wooden. There was nothing technically wrong with the English - it just didn't always flow well. Sometimes, I think this was deliberate, in an attempt to bring across the Sicilian flavour of the language. This was understandable during conversations (of which there are a lot throughout the book), but not during descriptions. I didn't misunderstand anything, but it was slightly off-putting at times.
Apart from that, the writing was very vivid, colourful and straight to the point - very Italian in fact! I just wish I could read it in the original language.
In case you were wondering, the title The Shape of Water refers to the fact that water can be made into any shape you want, just as any event (or crime in this case) can be made into how you want it to be seen.
Published by Picador, the book is available from Amazon for £3.99. ISBN: 0330492861