Andrea Camilleri The Shape of Water
Translated by Stephen Sartarelli
Picador 2005 (1994)
Truth is like water poured into a vase or a glass, a cup or a bucket: just as water takes its shape from its container, truth can be just as malleable, depending on one’s point of view. Camilleri’s The Shape of Water presents just such a conundrum: a corpse is discovered and though it soon becomes clear the deceased died from natural causes all is not as it seems, with Commissario Montalbano suspecting foul play when circumstantial evidence suggests things don’t add up.
The first in the Inspector Montalbano series set the bar high when it was first published two decades ago. The Sicilian detective is an idiosyncratic crime fighter who bends the rules if it’s necessary to arrive at the truth. Unlike the costumed heroes of comic books, however, he relies on intellect and logic rather than fists and superpowers to accomplish it, and with the corruption and violence that is still synonymous with Sicily it’s easy to believe that the ends justifies the means, even if his longtime girlfriend Livia thinks that he is behaving like a tinpot god.
Along the way we meet a succession of vivid characters, from an indulgent commissioner to a Swedish bombshell, from his boyhood friend who is now a pimp to the upright widow of the deceased. Several individuals we even get to meet again in subsequent novels, but they already seem to spring fully formed from these pages. Above all, you may start to care for the Inspector himself despite his irascibility; he is at heart a decent man who cares for the deserving, who does his best to redress the balance when criminals profit from their activities and who loves his job.
The Shape of Water is well plotted, ensnaring the reader in its twists and turns but playing absolutely fair. Even though the majority of places mentioned are fictional there is a good sense of landscape, a feeling of Sicily as ‘other’ than the rest of Italy. There are snatches of local dialect words (even in this translation), references to local cuisine, an underlying suspicion of layers of national government and policing that are ignorant and careless of the island’s particular identity.
And yet, for all Montalbano’s contentment with working in a backwater, he is (like his creator) well-read, cultured and intelligent. Yes, he may use foul language to match the bravado of his colleagues, but he remains faithful to his girlfriend, hates violence and enjoys his gastronomic pleasures. There are moments of unpleasantness (much of it related secondhand) but also of humour and humanity. You can see why the novels became popular in Italy, evolving into successful TV programmes and now, several series on, being enjoyed abroad even in English-speaking countries: its judicious mix of grit and wit is attractive even for those, like me, who are not out-and-out fans of crime novels.