book: A Voice in the Night (2012; trans 2016 Stephen Sartarelli) by Andrea Camilleri

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It’s Inspector Montalbano’s 58th birthday, and he’s trying to use what we might call the Sicilian equivalent of GOP economics to persuade everyone — especially himself — that it’s really only his 57th.

Meanwhile, he’s got two cases to solve — three, really, though two seem obviously to be part of the same case. One involves the apparent suicide of a supermarket manager whose mob-owned supermarket has just been robbed of the day’s takings; a nightwatchmen who worked for the next-door premises is later found murdered in a traditional-style mafia “execution,” presumably because he saw the burglary in progress. The other case is that of a brutally murdered young architecture student whose live-in boyfriend just happens to be the son of a prominent local politician.

I much enjoyed this book, as I generally do when reading Camilleri’s Montalbano novels. At the same time, as I put it down after turning the final page, I realized I was doing so not with a sense of satisfaction but instead with a feeling of slight disappointment. I haven’t read all of the books in the series, not by any means — perhaps half a dozen of them at the outside — but it doesn’t seem as if they’re in any way progressing. Yes, they have chronological indicators — such as Montalbano’s 58th birthday — but really they’re all very much of a muchness. By chance today I noticed two of the ones I’d already read sitting close to each other on the shelf and realized I couldn’t remember much if anything about either. I could recall the feel of reading them, but it was just the generic feel of a Montalbano novel, not anything specific to each of the two books and nothing to distinguish them from the one I’d just finished.

I suppose there are lots of detective series about which one could say something similar, and yet the first two that popped into my mind — Sue Grafton’s alphabetical tales, Ian Rankin’s Rebus stories — both do show progression. I don’t mean just progression in the series character’s life, although that can be handy, but progression in the writer’s approach to the material. Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone books were each distinct in spirit from its predecessor; Rebus’s tales became deeper and dourer and more claustrophobic — more noirish, in fact — until, after a break, Rankin seemingly having concluded he’d gone as far as he could in that direction, they became by comparison almost light-hearted. (Only by comparison, yunnerstan!) The Commissario Montalbano novels, by contrast, seem stuck forever in the same place.

Which is in a sense okay, and if these were mysteries of a different stripe it wouldn’t matter at all. John Dickson Carr’s Gideon Fell mysteries didn’t need to evolve much because what was constantly new and inventive were the puzzle and its resolution. You could say the same about the Ellery Queen series, except that those, even though remaining at heart puzzle mysteries, did evolve over time, and quite radically so.

Maybe I’m making too much of this — not just on the page but in my own mind — because, as I said at the outset, I did enjoy reading A Voice in the Night. But then I enjoyed the breaded tilapia and fresh vegetables I ate for my supper yesterday; I just wouldn’t want that same meal every single flipping time.

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8 thoughts on “book: A Voice in the Night (2012; trans 2016 Stephen Sartarelli) by Andrea Camilleri

  1. Yes, I think I’m with you on this. It would be interesting to see a bit more development in the political/cultural themes as the series progresses, especially given the potential scope for this in a setting such as Sicily. Like you. I’ve read half a dozen or so of them and they definitely start to merge together after a while.

    • As a commenter over at Goodreads has pointed out, the reason she likes series like this one are that with each new novel she can relax into the company of an old friend, so to speak. I can see the force of that argument, and I know on occasion I’ve picked up a series title for exactly that reason. Yet at the same time, if reading a series at all, I like it if each new series entry brings a surprise. As example, with Allingham’s Campion novels you never knew quite what you were going to get next: aside from the transformations of the ever-plastic Campion, you could find yourself reading a thriller, or an impossible-murder mystery, or a borderline police procedural, or even a novel that’s almost a theological musing.

      All that said, every now and then I’m tempted to binge-read one of the series for a few weeks — Miss Silver, perhaps, or Maigret . . .

  2. Well, even with that final amusing disclaimer I can see you enjoyed this though unfortunately I am drawing a blank. Still I jotted it down and am delighted you made another reference to Carr and his master sleuth Gideon Fell! Superlative and most engaging review.

  3. I know where you are coming from – the series is about colour and local dialect (obviously completely lost in translation, no matter how good) and the continuing mirror it holds up to the Italian political landscape – that such a popular series has had such a strong critique of the Right in Italy has been a massive thing there. Very of little of this will translate, no question, and Camilleri’s plots are OK, often, rarely great. And the depiction of women is a big limitation, as accurate as it may be given the environment is chooses to depict …

    • I always wonder with Camilleri how much I might be missing: one can see that the political aspect is there (for example, thanks to the translator’s notes at the back of A Voice in the Night, I know there’s a couple of swipes at the Berlusconi govt in the text), but it’s hard to catch the nuances.

      (This sort of thing has been on my mind lately. A couple of days ago I was chatting with a US movie blogger who, quite understandably, hadn’t noticed the subtext critique of Thatcherism/Blairism in the movie The Croupier. It’s almost impossible to catch these things cross-culture.)

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