The Shape of Water


Andrea Camilleri


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

January 29, 2021

was browsing lists of great historical mystery series and came across a recommendation for the Inspector Montalbano series, which is now up to 27 volumes. I figured I should begin with the first book in the series, The Shape of Water. The blurb on the front cover of the paperback edition states: "The novels of Andrea Camilleri breathe out the sense of place, the sense of humor and sense of despair that fill the air of Sicily." On the back cover is an excerpt from the New York Times Book Review: Andrea Camilleri's "savagely funny police procedural proves that sardonic laughter is a sound that translates ever so smoothly into English". So forgive me if I expected this to be a funny book. Perhaps my expectations were skewed by such quotes - I expected this to be a humorous book. But The Shape of Water is not funny. I don't think it even tries to amusing; maybe other readers are laughing and I missed all the jokes.

The novel begins with two garbage men finding a diamond necklace worth 10 million lire. They also come across a BMW parked in the bushes with a dead man inside. They recognize the man - he is a famous politican named Silvio Luparello. Even worse, the dead man has his pants down below his knees, exposing his privates. The crime scene is in a seedy neighborhood called the Pasture, where drugs and prostitution are common. Why would a famous politician be meeting with prostitutes in such a disreputable area?

Inspector Salvo Montalbano is the police commissioner in the town of Vigāta on the island of Sicily. He is called to the crime scene, and is puzzled by several details. Why is the man in the passenger seat? Surely the gorgeous blonde prostitute who disappeared would not be allowed to drive his BMW. Why is Luparello still wearing his jacket - who drops his pants to have sex but keeps his coat on? Why did the car enter the Pasture from the unexpected direction, up a nearly impassable road? Yet it appears that the death was of natural causes - no sign of wounds, and Luparello had heart issues. Apparently his heart gave out during his illict assignation.

I don't recall any dates in the book, nor any mention of events that would place this novel in a specific time, but I am guessing it is late 20th century (no mention of cell phones, money is in lire, not euros, which were adopted by the European Union on January 1 of 1999). Inspector Montalbano is perhaps fifty years old? He sounds like a rumpled detective. At one point, Montalbano is talking to one of his lifelong friends, Gege, who happens to run the criminal enterprises in the Pasture district, and Montalbano asks his friend what percentage the other cops collect as kickbacks. Gege responds: "Get yourself transferred to vice and you'll find out. I'd like that. It'd give me a chance to help out a poor wretch like you, who only lives on his salary and goes around dressed in rags". So the aging Montalbano is not a handsome man nor a stylish dresser. But despite his age and appearance and lack of weath, good looking young women are always offering to sleep with him. I found this a bit unlikely!

Montalbano interviews multiple suspects and characters in this novel. What is surprising is how cooperative and truthful everyone seems to be. For example, his friend Gege gives him a list of his members in his Pasture crime gang, complete with addresses and nicknames. Luparello's wife has a examined photographs from the crime scene, and points out a big clue to Montalbano. It almost seems too easy for the police commissioner. The paperback book is only 218 pages long, things are wrapped up quickly, but not entirely satisfactorily.

I thought that the end of the novel was disappointing. Montalbano explains to his wife all the clues, and what really happened. But to me the explanation left out a lot of explanation - who was setting up Ingrid, and why? Who was the blonde who had sex with Luparello and then got picked up by another car? I didn't understand the whole subplot of the necklace.

The Sicily that Camilleri depicts in his book is wholly corrupt. The politicians, the police officers, Montalbano's friends - no one follows the law. We learn that Montalbano himself will destroy evidence to bring the case to the correct conclusion. I hope to visit Sicily some day; I hope it is nothing like the culture depicted here. I wasn't that impressed with this novel, I am not sure I will read the next installment in the series.