What a delight it is during a gray New England January, to join Salvatore Montalbano on his veranda overlooking the beach at Marinella. There might be a cold bottle of white wine, perhaps a bowl of olives, certainly some tumasso or caciocavallo, and maybe we are anticipating some purpiteddro a strascinasali or some other delicacy left by Adelina, for later. Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano series may be uneven, but Salvo is one of the great eaters of the crime fiction genre. I can't actually think of any other detective who derives such elemental pleasure from a meal, or who will stop everything in an investigation because it is lunch time. It is as if he is a plant in need of watering, once fed (well) our hero can get on with solving the crime at hand.
The Potter's Field (2008, trans. version 2011) is the latest in this marvelous series, and a return to the classic bones after a strange detour with The Track of Sand. Montalbano and his supporting cast of characters at the Vigata station - Cattarella, Fazio, Augello - are only surface buffoons, in fact they are the wise fools of an otherwise mostly idiotic Sicilian system of justice. As in all the books, Montalbano's patience is tried one million ways by the public, the prosecutors, the media, the Mafia, at least one gorgeous dame, and of course several exquisite meals. He is a grump with a heart of, well, not quite gold, but perhaps a very good cheese (about as valuable in Salvo's and my world), perpetually misunderstood by but simultaneously enraging his long-term gal-pal Livia, who lives in the north. This is the thirteenth book in the series, and it is worth reading them in order, to truly understand the relationships that exist and to become completely in tune with Salvo's views on things. To reach this point is to understand instantly why he and Livia end most phone calls in a rage, why a call to the prosecutor's office is so disheartening, and why we care at all if Mimi is in a bad mood. This novel starts with a dismembered body, moves on to a missing husband, and then here comes the Mafia. I expect that upon finishing it, I'll be left with a fractured recollection of the sun, sea, nasty crimes, beautiful women, and pasta with sea urchins, which is pretty much what I remember from all of them.
Camilleri's style is what I imagine the Sicilian landscape to be like, a bit arid, brilliantly lit, nothing wasted (the necessity born of poverty?) and occasionally hiding some valuable bit of information. Little time is wasted setting a scene, the action moves along with rapid dialogue, but there are never those dreadful cliffhangers, it is just that the characters mostly engage with each other or the situation, rather than letting the writer sit around ruminating about it. One feels completely absorbed in whatever is happening as if one were riding along, sitting in on the interrogation, or invited for dinner (I wish). I'll have the nunnatu fritters, please.