Reviewed by Gerard Healy
There are arguably only a handful of top-ranked crime writers who can bring a lighter, humorous touch to the grim business of investigating death. The late, great Italian writer, Andrea Camilleri was one such. In his Inspector Montalbano series, set mainly on the island of Sicily, he gives us a cast of human characters with their foibles, flaws and funnier sides.
In this story, Montalbano has two puzzles to work out.
The first involves a series of short films, all shot on the same day of the year from 1958 to 1963 and all showing a blank wall. The films were unearthed when a movie company asked locals to find old footage to help them recreate scenes for an upcoming Italian/Swedish co- production. Why would someone film a blank wall?
The second puzzle is who are the two armed intruders who took over a local classroom and fired shots and why did they do it? Naturally, mass panic follows this attack and politicians, the public and the media are clamouring for answers. Amid the wild speculation that terrorism might be involved, Montalbano and his team set about unravelling the case.
However, whatever else is going on around him, as regular as clockwork, our hero has to stop and eat. Preferably alone and in silence. We are treated to much loving detail as mouth-watering meals succeed each other. One of the benefits of all these meals is that it gives him time to think and sift the evidence again. Then, because the restaurant he usually frequents is crowded, he shares a table with an old-timer, who gives him valuable info.
It doesn’t seem as if our aging detective gets much aerobic exercise, so I wondered if all these dinners were making him a possible heart-attack victim. Perhaps all the coffee he drinks balances out the calories.
While Montalbano is the main character, he is ably assisted by his small team. Camilleri is skilled at providing good guys who have flaws and villains whom we can understand. Inspector Augello, the deputy, is an interesting mix of flawed husband, good father and brave cop. He happens to be visiting his son’s classroom to speak to the teacher when the attack takes place.
Two other characters round out the team. Detective Constable Fabio is a steady, reliable pair of hands and then there’s Catarella, the switchboard operator, known as Cat. Cat is almost a comic-book clown of a figure who speaks like a Marx brothers Italian.
‘Any news?’ Montalbano asks him. ‘Da nooz is cumin ‘ard an fass, Chief! I’m asposta dilliver t’ yiz poissonally in poisson’ is the reply.
One of Camilleri’s strengths is the adroit use of dialogue to flesh out the characters and move the story forward. One example… while rushing to catch a plane Montalbano has a slight bingle with another motorist. Introductions follow. ‘Moron’ ‘Cretin’.
In contrast to the male characters, Camilleri’s female characters seem to have few flaws at all. They nearly all seem to be sensible, grounded people. From the wife of the unfaithful husband to the film’s liaison person and his absent girlfriend Livia, we’re inclined to be sympathetic to them all. Of course, misunderstandings sometimes occur and some lose their cool, but without the major consequences the males generate. One of the amusing sub-plots of the novel is the way Montalbano has to extradite himself and some colleagues from these misunderstandings.
When Montalbano decides to look at the teenage students from the class which was caught up in the attack, he enters an alien world. It is the world of social media and technology, way beyond his “old school” knowledge. Luckily for him, he has guides who help him find a path. An attractive young Postal Police officer becomes key to unlocking the mystery and Montalbano is very grateful to her.
Another theme that Camilleri has some fun with is the cultural differences between the Swedish and Italian crews on the movie set. The language differences alone prove ample grounds for bemused looks and cross words. Then there are the gorgeous women who attract crowds and slow the work in the town. As Cat observed, even the criminals are taking a break, which gives Montalbano some time to uncover the blank wall puzzle.
I really enjoyed reading this story and it kept me engaged throughout: recommended.
Andrea Camilleri (1925-2019) has sold over 65 million copies of his books worldwide. ‘The Shape of Water’ (1994) started the Montalbano series which, over time, has been translated into 32 languages and made into a successful TV series. Camilleri worked in theatre and TV production before a late career surge as a mystery writer. He was politically left-wing and he and his wife Rosetta have three daughters.
The Safety Net
by Andrea Camilleri
ISBN: 9 781529 035568
$29.99; 304 pp
translated into English by Stephen Sartarelli (2020)