Review published on April 17, 2017.
The new Montalbano mystery is the one I most look out for every year. As a character, he has become like an old friend and in A Voice in the Night he is on top form because Camilleri is on top form. Like any long running series of books, some are likely to be better than others, but with Camilleri you can be sure none are just fillers. This novel is right up there among the best of recent Italian crime literature. One of the funniest in years, yet still with the same brutal, genuinely dark tale of Sicilian life.
I should start by stating that I am a total fan of Andrea Camilleri and have been since reading the first Commissario Montalbano novel, The Shape of Water. A Voice in the Night is the 20th in the series to be published in English (there are four yet to be translated). There are also short stories, collected in Montalbano’s First Case and the e-story The Fourth Secret. Camilleri has had a long and distinguished career and in the last few years others of his novels have been translated and published here and in America; The Brewer of Preston and The Hunting Season are set in an earlier period of Sicilian history, and there is the short story Judge Surra. All these novels show off the comic and satirical genius of Camilleri’s writing.
In A Voice in the Night, Montalbano wakes one morning in an irascible mood (and that is before he discovers it is his 58th birthday). By his own logic he is a year younger, so people should mind their own business. The telephone conversation with his girlfriend, Livia, does not go well, but then they often don’t. Even before he gets to the office he has arrested a young man, Strangio, for road rage directed at himself. A simple event that will come back to haunt the case. Montalbano wants to lock the young man up and throw away the key, but he is the son of a prominent politician and he has a good lawyer. Meanwhile, his assistant, Inspector Mimi Augello, is out on a job, a supermarket has been robbed of the day’s takings, which should have been deposited in the night safe. The manager, Borsellino, is in a panic and shortly afterwards is found hanged – suicide? Not likely. Then, young Strangio finds his girlfriend brutally murdered in his flat. Both the politicians and the mafia are after Montalbano on this one and they want to close down the investigations as soon as possible. The usual mix of fascinating investigation (cleverly plotted and partially based on real events), high farce and dark doings all elegantly and apparently effortlessly written ensues. Among the targets for the novel are Berlusconi and the corrosive nature of the links between mafia and state that tear at the heart of Sicily.
All the Montalbano novels are translated by Steven Sartorelli, a published author and poet in his own right, who deftly deals with the interplay between Sicilian and Italian culture and language and regional dialects. Conveying the humour and the social critique fundamental to Camilleri’s work, maintaining the wit, erudition, keen satire and lightness of tone that all come through with gusto. Rightly Steven Sartorelli is one of the most sought after translators from Italian to English.
The Montalbano series of novels has also faired well when transferred to the television, RAI have produced ‘Montalbano’, closely sticking to the text, dialogue and original stories, while ‘Young Montalbano’ covers the early cases. Both are staples of the BBC4 Saturday night Euro-programming but don’t watch the show first as lines and comic situations are lifted directly from the novels.
Montalbano can sometimes act like a petulant child, a naughty boy, irascible, often self indulgent, generally tactless but ultimately endearing. This is beautifully illustrated by the line: “…. [his] …. quibbling reflex kicked into action….”
He is idiosyncratic, intelligent, essentially honest and he has a big heart. He inspired loyalty although he doesn’t often acknowledge it. He has a way of getting to the truth of the matter through intuition, guess work, deductive brilliance and bloody mindedness. Some of his more recognisable foibles, he is a gourmand for example, and obsessions are a way for Camilleri to let the reader in on his love of Sicily, its food and life and his scorn for the corruption, political ineptitude and crime that spoils the island’s reputation. In this sense it is a kind of love story. Then, there is the long suffering girlfriend Livia. She has a long distance relationship with Montalbano that has endured despite Montalbano’s dalliances, their equally fiery tempers and the time spent apart. The station is comprised of a colourful crew of policemen and a wonderful cast of journalists, mafiosi, politicians, pathologists, judges, and femme fatales. Judge Tommaseo – only truly happy when there is a case involving sex or scandal and a young woman to comfort. Doctor Pasquano – the pathologist Montalbano has fought with for years and getting information out of him is like pulling teeth. The church, the state and authority of any kind are there to be made fun of.
Camilleri is a grand old man of Italian literature, 91, and still going strong. The next Montalbano investigation to come, A Nest of Vipers, will be published in the Autumn. An historical novel, The Revolution of the Moon, is due out next month. I can’t wait.
Paul Burke 5/4
A Voice in the Night by Andrea Camilleri
Mantle 9781447264569 hbk Oct 2016