Death at Sea by Andrea Camilleri

Review published on October 11, 2018.

Death at Sea is a warm blanket for a cold winter evening. It’s a collection of eight stories that have been adapted for the Montalbano and Young Montalbano TV series shown on BBC4, so they may be familiar to fans but, of course, it’s all in the telling. These stories have Camilleri’s customary lightness of touch but there is always that undercurrent of dark truth about an island in thrall to the mafia. Equally his love of Sicily and the people shines through. Having followed Montalbano for a number of years I was looking for the traits that make the detective such a magnet for readers and I wasn’t disappointed. The stories are loaded with irony, dry humour, a moral dilemma and a nutty little mystery that only Salvo Montalbano can penetrate and solve. These short stories stretch across time and so we meet up with the ‘youngish’ Montalbano, 34, again (that’s a thrill for fans who have become used to the older Montalbano). He’s a little hot tempered and even a bit gung ho on one case. I love the local colour, the food and the settings. More than anything this collection of stories is fun, if you don’t know Montalbano may be this is a good place to start.

The first story is Room Number Two. This opens with an exchange between Livia and Salvo that instantly confirms that we are in Montalbano country. They are on the veranda, Livia is teasing Salvo, she reminds him he is such a creature of habit that he will be nightmare when he gets old. Incidentally, “He didn’t like to think about getting old.” Salvo is goaded into visiting a new restaurant that night (fans will know how big a deal this is!). To Montalbano’s satisfaction the food is awful, his prejudice is confirmed and he is almost as satisfied as if he had a good meal. The lovers are enjoying the beautiful night, Salvo, unusually, drives into Vigata from the north just to prove he can be spontaneous. The lovers stop to admire the night sky but their romantic moment is spoiled by the smell of smoke. The Hotel Panorama is on fire; fortunately, all the guests are rescued. The building is gutted by the time the fire brigade turns up. Next morning Augello investigates, the fire chief can’t be certain but this could be arson. The owner has no reason to burn down his own place but each of the guests has a secret, one is staying with the compliments of the Sinagra family, a local mafia clan. Livia thinks she saws a car driven by a woman speed away. Only Montalbano’s incisive questioning and deductive reasoning will get to the truth.

Double Investigation sees Montalbano shot at while driving to a meeting with the commissioner. Much to Dr. Pasquano’s dismay he is not seriously hurt, he was looking forward to doing the autopsy. Ernesto Guarraci is a surveyor and adviser to the town council of Vigata. When his wife, Giovanna wants to visit her sister, Lia, in Caltanisetta he drives her to the station early the next morning. But Giovanna never turns up, she didn’t board the train, or even buy a ticket, she is missing. The husband left her at the underpass to the station, he was seen driving away, in fact he nearly knocked over a council worker doing so. Giovanna was bringing money to her sister’s husband, his business is in trouble he needs 18M Lira (1984 about £9,000). A local doctor comes under suspicion when it emerges he was having an affair with Giovanna (the husband also has a mistress). The case is interrupted by other crimes but Montalbano doesn’t let it go. This tale of cold blooded murder is a little chilling.

The Death at Sea appears to be an accident at first. A trawler has reported to shore that the mechanic has been shot in a freak accident by another member of the crew – a plausible story that Montalbano doesn’t buy for a second. When the vessel arrives back in port Montalbano has them re-enact the crime. Maybe it was an accident but something is going on. In order to find out what Montalbano is prepared to bully, hoodwink and manipulate the crew and the Master until he gets answers. Why would the shooter, Tano Cipollo, have a gun on board? Why is the vessel called Carlo III? What are the crew and the owner hiding about the last fishing trip? What connection does the owner Matteo Cosentino have to the Cuffuros (another mafia clan)? And, how do the beautiful twins, Lelle and Lalla figure in this mystery?

There are five other stories in this collection. Like all collections the standard varies, I liked each of the ones I have outlined but my favourite was Standard Procedure and all the stories are here are decent tales. Each story has a nice sense of ambiguity about the ending, the criminals are caught but the resolution of the moral dilemma at the heart of the tales is less clear. Almost a question for the reader to resolve.

I enjoyed spending some time with the younger Montalbano again, the more irascible character, the man who bickers with Dr Pasquano, bullies Augello ‘the skirt chaser’s and can’t have a conversation on the telephone with girlfriend Livia without running the risk of it ending up in a fight. Naturally, Catarella continues to mangle the language (there is a difference between Sicilian and Italian) and Fazio’s habit of second guessing Montalbano’s needs really irritates him. The familiar placement of a film or book, Sciascia’s To Each His Own for example, inspires Montalbano’s crime solving. For all that these are short stories, light and entertaining, they have a depth and intricacy that is really satisfying. As with all the novels this collection is brilliantly translated by poet and author Stephen Sartarelli, his understanding and affection for the original is evident, the occasional note is very reassuring and helpful. Camilleri is the grand old man of Italian letters, there are twenty-two Montalbano novels and a further collection of short stories, Montalbano’s First Case. I love the dark side of crime but Montalbano always cheers me up. This is just bloody good fun!

Paul Burke 4/4

Death at Sea by Andrea Camilleri
Mantle 9781509809110 hbk Sep 2018

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