Tag Archives: Italian crime fiction

To Each His Own by Leonardo Sciascia

 The Dangers of Communication….

As part of my decision to read more New York Review Classics, I picked up To Each His Own written by Sicilian novelist Leonardo Sciascia. To Each His Own begins with the delivery of an anonymous letter to Manno, a mild-mannered, married pharmacist who lives in a small Sicilian town. The letter’s delivery is caught with delightfully precise perfection in the book’s introduction:

“The letter arrived in the afternoon delivery. As usual, the postman laid the parti-colored sheaf of advertising circulars on the counter first; then carefully, almost as if there were some danger of its exploding, the letter. It was a yellow envelope; a small white rectangle bearing the printed address had been pasted on it.”

The anonymous letter, eventually opened by Manno in the presence of the curious postman is a death threat, and as the news of the letter spreads around town, no one–least of all its recipient–can imagine what Manno has done to provoke such behaviour. Sciascia efficiently creates a portrait of Manno, a man who is the embodiment of inoffensive: he’s mild enough to tolerate the postman loitering in his shop and ogling his letter, he’s spent a lifetime avoiding politics, and even a mention of Manno’s wife “the unbeautiful, slightly faded, slightly slovenly woman” hints at Manno’s ability to absorb domestic unpleasantness for the sake of peace and quiet.

Everyone who hears of the letter is convinced it’s a joke, and this collective reaction again endorses Manno as an inoffensive man; what could he possibly have done, what offense could he have committed that would provoke such a violent threat? It seemed impossible, and Manno finally settles, a little uncomfortably, on the idea that whoever sent the letter must be jealous of his prowess as a hunter.

The news that Manno has been murdered–along with his long-time hunting companion, Dr Roscio stuns the townspeople, but gradually a fiction is created that Manno was a secret adulterer and that Dr Roscio, an innocent man “caught in the middle”  was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. As the fiction builds,  rumours spread throughout town. Manno is gradually blamed for Roscio’s death, and a few other townspeople become necessary victims to the fiction and unsavoury tales that circulate–all unsubstantiated. Judgement is silently passed and everyone agrees that Manno received an anonymous death threat because he deserved it.

There’s a general mood of complacency in town towards the murders, and there’s also a great deal of speculation concerning the beautiful, ripe widow Roscio. Surely she won’t go to waste now that her husband is dead? The future amorous adventures of the widow occupy the minds of the townspeople while the murders, so unusual in this town fade from interest. Only Professor Laurana feels uneasy about the crime, but then he catches a clue about the letter’s origin. The clue is so obvious, and yet no one else seems interested. Laurana decides to take matters into his own hands….

To Each His Own starts out as a murder mystery (and an intriguing one) with Laurana as the amateur detective, but it very quickly becomes apparent that Sciascia is much more interested in the town’s reaction to the crime than its solution. After Laurana discovers the first clue, he cannot conceive that it’s been ‘missed’ by the police, and “out of vanity” he begins a very simple, informal investigation–just asking a few questions here and there. As Laurana rather ploddingly picks his way from one clue to another, the solution is right in front of his nose (and ours), but Laurana seems to not want that solution, and so he continues with his clumsy sleuthing. And it’s through Laurana’s refusal to at first believe the evidence right in front of his eyes that it becomes clear that his quest for the truth is more than a matter of crime solving. Laurana investigates not just the crime but his entire belief system. Laurana discovers that no one is what they seem, left and right politics no longer have any meaning, and instead all political positions have congealed into a rotting stew of self-serving corruption. Laurana is sucked into solving the crime; he cannot resist:

“But however he revolved the affair, turning it this way or that, it possessed some equivocal, ambiguous element, even though the relationships of cause and effect were still unclear, as were those of the protagonists among themselves and those details in the mechanism of the crime that he knew to be facts. And in that equivocation, that ambiguity, he felt himself morally and sensually involved.”

As the novel’s meta meaning moves beyond the entertaining plot into social commentary, To Each His Own becomes a powerful examination of Italian society, its passivity towards power and corruption, and the danger of asking too many questions, yes “it’s dangerous to nose about.” Indeed communication plays an important role in the novel–beginning with the anonymous letter, and continuing through Laurana’s questions.

Here’s one of my favourite passages from the book. It’s a scene in which Laurana meets a character called Benito, and the scene takes place in Benito’s impressive library. Benito admits to Laurana that he never leaves the house:

“Haven’t for some years. At one point in my life, I made a few quite precise calculations: if I leave the house in search of the company of one intelligent person, one honest person, I run the risk of meeting en route a dozen thieves and half as many idiots who stand poised to communicate to me their views on mankind, the national government, the city administration, Morovia…Does it seem to you worth the trouble?”

“No actually not.”

“And then I am very comfortable at home, especially here.” He pointed to the books and gestured as if to gather them all to him.

“A fine library,” Laurana said.

“Not that I can always avoid stumbling into thieves and idiots even here. I’m speaking of writers, obviously, not their characters. But I easily get rid of them. I return them to the bookshop or I present them to the first fool who comes to call on me.”

Benito choses to communicate with the world rarely. In his library “everything that happens in town … is pure theatre.”  Isolated from society, Benito maintains his integrity and avoids corruption. Laurana’s journey towards the truth is so difficult because he encounters corruption on every level. This corruption is a mental stumbling block more than anything else, and then again, the bachelor Laurana who’s shielded from the world by his mother, falls under the spell of a woman. Society is infused with poison; love is both corrupted and corrosive, and gossip taints with innuendo. Truth is the ultimate victim.

The introduction by W.S. DI Piero outlines Sciascia’s life and argues that he “used storytelling as an instrument for investigating and attacking the ethos of a culture–the insular, mafia-saturated culture of Sicily–which he believed to be a metaphor of the world.” I wouldn’t presume to understand the intricacies of the Italian political/criminal scene; it’s vast and complex and probably best understood by the Italians. The introduction mentions that Sciascia was  a great movie fan, and that’s interesting as the book’s very first paragraphs made me think of Le Corbeau.

Translated by Adrienne Foulke.

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Voice of the Violin by Andrea Camilleri

“The inspector contemplated his superior’s disturbing hairdo, which was very full with a great big tuft in the middle that curled back like certain turds deposited in the open country. An exact replica of the coif of that criminally insane psychiatrist who’d triggered all the butchery in Bosnia.”

I am currently reading the 13th novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, Germinal, and if you have read the novel, you know it’s about French miners–French miners in the 19th century who slave under the most horrendous, unsafe conditions and barely make enough to eat. Well if that sounds downright depressing, you’d be right, and so I decided I needed something to read along with Germinal–something a little lighter. And so I turned to Andrea Camilleri’s novel, Voice of the Violin.

Voice of the Violin is the fourth novel in the Sicilian Inspector Montalbano mysteries. As I write this, I realize that it probably sounds odd to pick an Italian crime novel set in Sicily as ‘light’ reading, but that will probably give you a fair idea of the sort of crime novel Camilleri writes. Light on violence, no gore, & heavy on the humour which is mainly found in the protagonist, Salvo Montalbano.

Voice of the Violin is, so far at least, the weakest in the series. Bear in mind I’ve only read four, and funnily enough, the third novel, The Snack Thief, was the best to date.

In Voice of the Violin,  Montalbano investigates the murder of a beautiful young socialite. She is found naked, with her head shoved down into the mattress, and the autopsy reveals that she was suffocated–possibly during sex. While Montalbano painstakingly pieces together the woman’s last hours, he runs into a few stumbling blocks. The woman, Michela Licalzi, was married to a wealthy doctor, but to complicate matters, she led an almost completely separate life from her spouse and she had a lover.

Montalbano knows the victim’s identity, has the crime scene, but vital pieces of information are missing. Where are the victim’s clothes, for example?

As the investigation continues, Montalbano rubs shoulders with some helpful mafiosa who’d really like to buy his soul and butts head with a macho, corrupt Captain from the Flying Squad. Meanwhile he juggles the investigation with his troubled personal life. Still involved in his long-distance relationship with long-time lover, Livia, he faces temptation from Michela’s best friend.

With police detective series novels, it’s always a juggling act , and a fine balance must be maintained between the crime and the series detective. After all, we readers become fond of the series detective–that’s why we keep reading. In Voice of the Violin, while the crime doesn’t fade, the victim does. And although a few details of Michela’s life emerge, her corpse seems little more than a plot device to kick the story into action.  But perhaps I am still feeling the after-effects of reading Derek Raymond’s He Died With His Eyes Open–a novel in which a police detective practically merges his own identity with the victim…..

Of course, Montalbano is strongly present: grumpy, unpredictable, naked at times and always in search of the next gastronomic indulgence. Well, I have more Montalbano mysteries on my shelf, and I expected some to be better than others. In Voice of the Violin, Montalbano makes some huge errors, and he admits this, but at the same time, he battles police corruption in his own inimitable way–by rolling with it and playing the game with just enough underhand craftiness combined with bureaucratic finesse that he gets his way–eventually.

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The Snack Thief by Andrea Camilleri

“You know what you are Salvo? You’re a colander that leaks water out of a thousand holes, and all I’m ever doing is trying to plug as many holes as possible. ”

The Snack Thief is the third novel in the wonderful Sicilian crime series by Andrea Camilleri. These books just seem to get better and better, but perhaps I’m just getting fonder of Camilleri’s protagonist, the irascible, gourmet-food driven Inspector Salvo Montalbano. Opening up a Camilleri novel to read more adventures of Montalbano is like meeting an old friend.

The Snack Thief begins with the death of a Tunisian man who was one of the crew on a fishing boat. Since the man was fired on from a Tunisian patrol boat while in international waters, Montalbano is told that this incident could have serious “international repercussions.” But Montalbano, never one to accept orders from his ‘superiors,’ valiantly tries his best to avoid involvement in the case.

But soon Montalbano is distracted from the Tunisian case by the murder of a local man, businessman Lapecora who’s found stabbed to death in a lift. The case puzzles Montalbano, and the various attitudes of the victim’s neighbours manage to annoy the Inspector–a man not known for his patience. As Montalbano tries to solve the murder, he uncovers some very peculiar information about the victim, and intrigued, Montalbano concentrates on solving the case. Montalbano interviews an interesting assortment of characters–a hen-pecked husband, a jealous wife, philandering husbands, and a brutal hit man.

During the course of his investigation, Montalbano, a connoisseur of gourmet food and a student of human nature, indulges in a great number of elaborate meals while uncovering a vast number of dirty secrets. Montalbano’s long-suffering, long-distance girlfriend Livia makes an appearance (and this causes Montalbano’s housekeeper to disappear). The Snack Thief is not only a delightful read, but for Camilleri fans, the book hints that Montalbano’s existence (which is hardly carefree) is about to change forever. Montalbano is a flawed human being–there’s no argument there. From the way he lies about what food he’s eaten, to the way he refuses to be a ‘team player’ (how I loathe that term). But Montalbano has the sort of flaws we can accept, identify with, and forgive easily.

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The Terra-Cotta Dog by Andrea Camilleri

“Upon hearing this last question, Montalbano–who was watching the broadcast from his home, and for the last half hour had been unsuccessfully searching for a clean pair of underpants, which he knew must be around somewhere–told the newsman to go fuck himself.”

The Terra-Cotta Dog from Italian crime author Andrea Camilleri is the second novel in the wonderful Inspector Montalbano series. In this episode in Montalbano’s food-centered life, he ‘captures’ a vicious Mafioso known as Tano the Greek, a man so violent that it’s reported he murdered his own brother by strangulation. The capture, which is really just a staged, face-saving cover for Tano’s surrender, brings three things to Montalbano: celebrity status, the threat of a promotion, and the discovery of a double murder that took place fifty years before.

The first novel in the series, The Shape of Water, shows Sicilian Inspector Montalbano struggling to solve crime in spite of the obstacles of corruption. This second novel shows Montalbano obsessing about two unidentified murder victims whose deaths were obscured by WWII, American bombings and the arrival of American troops in Vigata.

As always, author Camilleri creates some fascinatingly bizarre characters. In The Terra-Cotta Dog, the strangest character has to be the eccentric priest Alcide Maraventano who suckles from a baby’s bottle while contemplating death rituals. There’s also Inspector Sciacchitano “universally known as pusillanimous ass-lick,” and Judge Lo-Bianco whose one-track mind is still working on his “ponderous” Magnus opus, “The Life and Death of Rinaldo and Antonio Lo Bianco, Masters of Law at the University of Girgeti at the Time of King Martin the Younger (1402-1409).”

As Montalbano tries to solve the fifty-year old murders, he’s forced to work with the men in his department, and as always Montalbano does not ‘work well with others.’ Montalbano’s patient, long-suffering, long-distance girlfriend Livia makes an appearance, as does the inspector’s cook–a woman whose wizardry in the kitchen uncannily matches Montalbano’s moods.

Although we learn Montalbano’s distaste for fascists, The Terra-Cotta Dog is not an overtly political novel. Instead there’s the background noise of “the magistrates who had laid bare the dirty secrets of the political corruption [who] were resigning in protest.” Humor invades almost every page, and this is due to Montalbano’s playful personality. Whether he’s lounging in his underwear, evading a promotion or indulging in a dirty dream, Montalbano’s approach to life makes him someone we’d love to hang out with, but since that’s impossible, I’ll happily settle for a few hours spent reading about this delightful character.

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The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri

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.

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