In the Italian crime novel, The Shape of Water, Signora Lupanello, the elegant, steely-nerved widow of a recently deceased Sicilian businessman tells Inspector Montalbano the following story:
‘One day I see that my friend had put a bowl, a cup, a teapot, and a square milk carton on the edge of a well, had filled them all with water and was looking at them attentively.
“What are you doing?” I asked him. And he answered me with a question in turn.
“What shape is water?”
“Water doesn’t have any shape!” I said laughing, “It takes the shape you give it.” ‘
Similarly in the novel, The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri, Inspector Montalbano must investigate a crime that is shaped by the stories behind it. The question is…which story is true?
The novel begins with Silvio Lupanello, an engineer and local “big shot” who is found dead in the back seat of his car is less than honorable circumstances. With his trousers around his ankles, and with the car in a local open-air red light district known as “the Pasture,” it’s assumed that Lupanello died in the middle of sex. But to Inspector Montalbano, something doesn’t add up. Sniffing that something about the case is fishy, Montalbano doggedly insists on conducting an investigation:
“In addition to glossing over the circumstances of the engineer’s death, the newspapers also carefully ignored the rumors that had been swirling for untold years around far less public affairs in which he’d been involved. There was talk of rigged contract competition, kickbacks in the billions of lire, pressures applied to the point of extortion. And in all these instances the name that constantly popped up was that of counselor Rizzo, first the caddy, then the right-hand man, and finally the alter ego of Luparello. But these always remained rumors, voices in the air and on the wind. Some even said that Rizzo was a liaison between Luparello and the Mafia, and on this every subject the inspector had once managed to read a confidential report that spoke of currency smuggling and money laundering. Suspicions, of course, and nothing more, since they were never given a chance to be substantiated; every authorization request for an investigation had been lost in the labyrinths of that same courthouse the engineer’s father had designed and built.”
Interviewing prostitutes, pimps and a gorgeous young Swedish woman, Montalbano discovers that all is not as it seems. Lupanello’s perfectly staged death scene covers a trail of ambition, corruption and vice.
As a fan of crime fiction (and I have a special weakness for Italian crime fiction), I was delighted to discover and read my first Camilleri novel. Set in the Sicilian town of Vigata, corruption is a way of life. Given the frequency of shootouts from rival gangs, some deaths are never investigated, but the wealthy, influential Luparello is seen as a “client” to the police, “in their jargon a ‘client’ meant a death they should look into.” While not an overtly political novel, nonetheless, corruption in Italy is alluded to through references to “the earthquake unleashed by a handful of Milanese judges” (Falcone & Borsellino). Salvo Montalbano doesn’t fight corruption in local government and in his own police force as much as he tries to solve crimes in spite of these obstacles. For example, it becomes clear that someone in his department is leaking information, so he makes sure the leaks are only of information that will help flush the guilty from their hiding places.
Another great aspect of this novel is the humour. Montalbano first appears in the middle of a dirty dream, and at several junctions in the story, he’s forced to elude a particularly aggressive admirer. Montalbano is not an idealist–he’s a realist, and so consequently, he’s amused–more than anything else–to see the corrupt power structure attempt to shut down the investigation before he’s finished. All the government institutions involved in the crime (and some that have nothing to do with it) try their best to bury Lupanello and conclude the case, but the wily Montalbano, after receiving a number of phone calls intended to bring pressure to close the case, tells his ‘superiors’ that to conclude the case too hastily would arouse suspicion of a cover up, and so by using terms everyone can understand, Montalbano craftily buys time to finish his investigation.
The Shape of Water is the first Inspector Montalbano novel in this series from Andrea Camilleri who is considered one of Italy’s greatest 20th and 21st century writers. I find myself asking where Camilleri has been all my life, or perhaps, since I’m the delinquent reader here, it should be the other way around.
Camilleri’s Montalbano is a homage to the Spanish author Manuel Vazquez Montalban and his detective Pepe Carvalho. Series novels that feature a set character must make us care about the protagonist and Camilleri does this in his creation of Montalbano. Tidbits of information about Montalbano’s life appear throughout the novel–his ongoing relationship with Livia, for example, and his gastronomic habits, but what I particularly enjoyed about the novel, is the refreshing way Montalbano doesn’t get his knickers in a twist about things, but takes evil, crime and corruption in his stride (even though he may heave a heavy sigh). He negotiates a chain of corruption–beginning on page one with the introduction of the garbage collectors all the way up–by knowing and understanding it all too well.