Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Wings of the Sphinx, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin Books, 2009
Originally published as Le ali della sfinge, 2006
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
231 pp

Moving on to the eleventh novel in the Inspector Montalbano series, Wings of the Sphinx is another excellent entry , although definitely more serious in tone than many of Camilleri's earlier books.  Events of the previous book August Heat are still fresh in his mind when Salvo is called to the scene of a murder, where a very young girl, barely only twenty, was found naked in a dump with a shotgun wound that tore her face off.  The officers have only an odd tattoo on her shoulder, one that turns out to be a sphinx moth. By focusing on the tattoo, Montalbano makes the link between this victim and other girls who were all taken in by an organization called Benevolence, whose main work is keeping young immigrant women away from the streets and finding them gainful employment.   While working on the murder, he also has to contend with the case of a missing businessman who, it seems, has been kidnapped.  But Montalbano's investigation is stymied when it turns out that Benevolence is backed by some very powerful people with friends in very high places, and they're breathing down the commissioner's neck.

But the investigation is not all that's on Montalbano's mind. He not only has to deal with a system that's going to pot where

 the police stations had no gasoline, the courts had no paper, the hospitals had no thermometers, and meanwhile the government was thinking about building a bridge over the Strait of Messina. But there was always plenty of gasoline for the useless escorts of ministers, vice ministers, undersecretaries, committee chairmen, senators, chamber deputies, regional deputies, cabinet chiefs, and underassistant briefcase carriers.......

but he also has to act as mediator between his two warring selves, Montalbano One and Montalbano Two, who "were always in disagreement."  And his relationship with Livia has taken a personal toll on Salvo, as things have become pretty rocky between them.  While considering the dead girl's tattoo, he comes to an insightful revelation:

The love between him and Livia had been exactly like the flight of a sphinx moth.
At first, and for many years, it had been straight, sure, focused, and determined, capable of spanning an entire ocean.
Then, at a certain point, that splendid, straight line of flight had broken apart, zigzagging this way and that. It became...uncertain and confused.
In this novel, it seems, Montalbano is at his most morose self -- lamenting things that are wrong with the world at large, not to mention in his personal sphere of life.

But there's still enough lighthearted humor in Montalbano, his close circle of colleagues and in how he sets out to beat a system that sometimes makes no sense to keep Camilleri's faithful readers happy in this novel; not even Salvo's often gloomy outlook can override the antics of Catarella,  the inspector's enjoyment of Enzo's Trattoria or the lovely meals left by Adelina in the fridge at Marinella.  And on top of everything, The Wings of the Sphinx offers a very good set of crimes that need solving. 

It's no wonder that this novel finds itself on the CWA International Dagger shortlist -- and I hope that its inclusion encourages potential first-time Camilleri readers to go back to the beginning of the series to see what they've missed.

crime fiction from Italy


  1. Thanks for your review. I enjoyed this one very much, myself, and I think you've touched nicely on what makes it work. Camilleri makes his points without preaching because we see the effects of, for instance, budget-cutting and nepotism, on individuals. We care about them, so we care about the issues. And then of course, there's the characters, the trattoria, etc..

  2. Thank you, Margot. One more to go in this series, and I'll definitely miss it when it's over. I hope Camilleri lives to be 100. He reminds me so much of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo sometimes!


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