This is the thirteenth of Andrea Camilleri's Italian detective stories to be translated into English, and it is Camilleri at his best. I had finished the book two and a half days after it popped through my letter box. (Apologies: most of this review is an amended version of one I did of an earlier book in the series.)
When I discovered Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano stories, I felt as though I'd stumbled across a gold mine. I'm hard to please when it comes to fictional detectives, but for me these books are up there alongside such greats as Raymond Chandler's first four novels, Dashiel Hammett's "The Dain Curse", the TV version of "Inspector Morse" and Jeremy Brett's first few TV series as Sherlock Holmes.
Camilleri thankfully does not rely on the currently predominant crime story formula of shock, gore and serial killers. (Although this one does start with the discovery of a chopped-up body!) Instead, all the Montalbano stories, including this excellent one, are characterised by three main elements, in addition to the obviously requisite page-turning plots.
Firstly, there is the character of our flawed hero Montalbano himself: selfish and odd, but endearing and amusing. Here is a man who will avoid meeting his girlfriend so that he can savour a good meal in his favourite restaurant without having to talk to anyone. Of course every writer tries to create a detective who is in some way "different" or quirky, or has an interesting relationship with his sidekick, but the Montalbano creation really works and is very refreshing.
Secondly there is the humour, often of the laugh-out-loud variety. There are grim moments in these murder stories, of course, but the prevailing tone is amusing. Much of the humour involves Montalbano's personality and his interactions with the other characters. But there are also comic gems such as Officer Catarella with his linguistic difficulties. My first reaction to this was negative: I thought that the translator, Stephen Sartarelli, was making this character (and several others) speak in the sort of corny, stereotyped language that writers have often condescendingly put into the mouths of working class characters. But then I realised that this was mainly the way that Sartarelli was tackling the difficult problem of translating the Sicilian dialect that features prominently in the original Italian novels. I also soon realised that Catarella's linguistic confusion is actually very funny. (It's a pity that Catarella does not appear in the very first story, "The Shape of Water".)
The third element that I like about these books is Camilleri's left wing politics. There are sideswipes at Berlusconi and plenty of references to the links between the Mafia, big business and corrupt politicians and police officers. One book, "Rounding the Mark", starts off with Montalbano considering resignation from the police force because he is disgusted at the (real life) police brutality directed against protesters at the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001. (Incidentally, points such as this are usefully explained in the notes provided by the translator.)
There is only one thing that for me slightly spoils three of the books in the series (but not this one). In "The Track of Sand" there is a brief episode where Montalbano seems to be living out events that he has previously experienced in a premonition-type dream. Similarly, in "August Heat" we have an incident involving telepathy between twins, and in "The Scent of the Night" there is a surreal episode in which Montalbano finds himself living out scenes from a novel he has previously read. The Montalbano stories are generally very down-to-earth, and I can't understand why Camilleri has slipped these brief paranormal episodes into three of the books.
Overall though, I strongly recommend this book, and indeed the whole series. It's been said that the great thing about Raymond Chandler's novels is that they take you into the world inhabited by Philip Marlowe: its places and its characters. Read these stories and enter Montalbano's world.
Incidentally, the Italian TV version of Montalbano is also very good, and it's frustrating that we have only seen two episodes on television here in Britain. (PS, February 2012. Good news: BBC 4 is showing 10 episodes.)