Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Montalbano 2x: The Patience of the Spider and The Paper Moon, by Andrea Camilleri

The Patience of the Spider
Penguin Books, 2007
Originally published as La pazienza del ragno, 2004
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
244 pp

Following Rounding the Mark as the eighth novel in this series, Inspector Salvo Montalbano is on leave, recuperating from events at the end of the previous story. Livia is there with him at the house in Marinella, but sadly that means that Adelina is not there to cook for him. Instead, he's been put on a low-calorie diet, and his life right at the moment is like his food -- rather bland and circumscribed. But when a young girl, Susanna Mistretta, is kidnapped, Montalbano is temporarily recalled to duty to solve the case. But as it turns out, it won't be Montalbano's case at all. His job  is to investigate and report to Inspector Filippo (Fifi) Minutolo, a colleague who's an expert in this area, ostensibly because he's a Calabrian from Messina who, according to Bonetti-Alderighi, "should know a lot about kidnappings."  He is to be the "Dora, the Riparia, or the Baltea" to Minutolo's Po.

Absolutely no one can understand exactly why anyone would choose to kidnap Susanna Mistretta -- her family is broke, her mother is gravely ill, and neither she nor her father is someone really important. The police will just have to wait, but Montalbano, of course, cannot just sit tight waiting for the kidnapper's demands to surface.  Furthermore, the entire town, it seems, is getting involved. And this time Montalbano doesn't just have his annoying boss breathing down his neck -- surprisingly, Livia is constantly on him about the case. He didn't tell her soon enough. He's a hypocrite. He's not doing enough.  

To be perfectly honest, I figured this out so early in the story that I really didn't feel like finishing the book. But I stuck with it, not just to prove myself right, but because the mysteries and their solutions are not the only reasons I read these novels. There are  the delightful characters, of course, but also, not one sensory experience is left out of Camilleri's descriptions of Sicily, not even smell -- Montalbano is able to experience smells as colors in a condition known as synesthesia.  I get this sense that Camilleri isn't always delighted with "progress" -- he successfully juxtaposes the beauty of the mountains, sand and sea with the ugliness of a man-made environment that impedes on the natural surroundings.  Add to that Camilleri's commentary (via his characters and his plots) on the corrupt dealings of Italy's power brokers and you begin to understand why Camilleri writes what and how he does. Not unlike many other writers in the realm of translated crime fiction, he's got a set of truths (as he sees them)  to get across to his readers.  But in the end, it's Montalbano's sense of justice and his keen observations of human nature that round out this story, so that guessing the solution early on isn't so bad.  It's also funny to watch Salvo sneaking away for decent food...these were some of the funnier moments of this book.

I'm not going to say that I loved this book, because I didn't, but it was okay. And although perhaps not the best in the bunch, The Patience of the Spider is still good reading, and my hat is tipped high in the air to Stephen Sartarelli, who brings the story to his English readers so perfectly!

The Paper Moon
Penguin Books, 2008
Originally published as La luna di carta, 2005
Translated by Stephen Sartarelli
264 pp

The Paper Moon is Montalbano's ninth adventure, and we find our irascible hero becoming more obsessed with aging and trying to get past thoughts of when his "dying day comes."   Actually, Montalbano is only in his fifties, so his worries might be a bit premature, and obviously he may think he's losing it, but his performance on this very odd case leaves the reader begging to differ. Even Livia thinks he's demented.

Sgt. Caterella brings in a woman to see Montalbano at the station. Mimi Augello, on whom Salvo would prefer to dump the visitor, is home with his baby, waiting for the doctor. Fazio is involved in a drug overdose case, so the Inspector is the only one left. As it turns out, the woman, Michela Pardo, is there to report her brother Angelo's disappearance.  Because Angelo is an adult and may have gotten it into his head to just go away for a while, Montalbano explains that he can't move on the case right away, but Michela's worries are so intense that he agrees to meet her at her brother's apartment later that evening. When they go into the apartment, there's no sign of Angelo, until Montalbano sees a small recess in the wall with a staircase within. At the top of the stairs is a room on the terrace, to which Michela has no key. Salvo breaks down the door and discovers Angelo's body -- collapsed in the armchair with half of his face blown off, his zipper opened and a certain part of his anatomy hanging out. Right away Michela accuses her brother's girlfriend Elena of the crime, but as the investigation proceeds, Montalbano's not so sure.  Angelo has his own secrets that may or may not be relevant to the crime, and the Inspector will leave no stone unturned until he gets to the truth.  In the meantime, Salvo continues to stress over growing old, is called to the Commissioner's office several times to find that the meetings are continually postponed, and has to fend off unwanted advances from a woman with carte blanche to have affairs.  And there's a delightfully funny moment when of all things, Montalbano dresses a piece of salmon with lemon juice and olive oil.

Again, I have to admit to have sort of figured out parts of this plot midstream -- not all, but a couple of key pieces of the core mystery.  I think once you're read so many of these and have got the pattern down, it's less difficult to figure out where Camilleri is going with his crime elements.  But as noted above, it's not just the crime that keeps drawing me back.  By now Montalbano is more along the lines of an old friend who I feel like checking in on now and then, just to see what he's up to.  I also think it makes a big difference as a reader when you read the entire series pretty much back to back in publication order, because there is little variance in the rather formulaic construction of these novel from book to book. I love the political critiques, the food, the characters and I feel like every time I'm reading one of these books, Sicily becomes more and more familiar to me. Most of all, I really like Montalbano -- his humor, his compassion, and everything else.

Three more to go and then I must wait until September to finish the series with the release then of The Potter's Field here in the US.  If anyone reading this is considering Camilleri's books, don't start with this one that is nearing the end -- take the time to go back to the beginning of it all.


  1. Excellent reviews, I too found Patience of the Spider (and Rounding the Mark) less good, but enjoyed Paper Moon - agreed that the broad outline of the plots is usually fairly easy to guess, but in PM I felt he conveyed the emotion very well. Actually I don't think these books improve, I still think the earlier ones were better - the subcharacters were more vivid and there was fun in seeing, for example, Mimi morph from a playboy to an over-devoted parent, and Caterelli from a hapless fool to a computer expert. I feel that these books have got a little tired but I always enjoy them - they are short and have some very good elements in Montalbano's rages against corruption and "progress". Plus, as you say, the outstanding translations.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Maxine!

    I love this series, but reading them all in one fell swoop is a bit difficult and you're right, they're getting a little tired. I'm really ready to move on, but I'm going to finish up what I have here before doing so (Fred Vargas is coming up next after a brief return to Scandinavia).

  3. I have to confess to reading these out of order, and when confronted by a pile of books, I go for the Montalbano. And I simply had to buy the two books my library doesn't have.

    I read The Snack Thief last weekend and enjoyed being in Vigata, vicariously eating fish and pasta and spending time with the increasingly cantankerous yet compassionate -- and witty inspector.

    I have 6 or 7 to go and am ruing the day when I'll be finished with this series, although I do admit to the need to intersperse these with books from the colder climates.

  4. I have got my hands on a proof of Outrage by Arnaldur Indridason and am enjoying it so much!

  5. Mine will be here July 10. I'll be in Seattle until then, so it will definitely be something great to come home to!

  6. Kathy D: Reading the last Wallander was tough for me, but there's always another good series around the corner!


I don't care what you write, but do be nice about it