Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Potter's Field, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin, 2011
originally published as Il Campo del Vasaio, 2008
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
277 pp. (trade paper)

The Potter's Field is the latest in Camilleri's adventures featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano, coming in  at book number thirteen in the series.  According to Wikipedia, there are three more already written, waiting to be translated.  Good. I'm not quite ready for the series to end just yet.  

Montalbano has a lot on his plate in this installment.  First, he is called to a crime scene in the middle of the pouring rain, where a man who sells clay from his land to local artists has discovered a body in a bag.   When the police examine the bag, they find that the body has been dismembered and the face bashed in beyond recognition.  While waiting for the forensics experts to do their job, he faces his second challenge: a drop-dead gorgeous and very alluring woman comes to the Vigata station to report that her husband, Giovanni Alfano, seems to be missing.  Dolores Alfano shows Salvo a note written by Giovanni, which she swears was not from him.  She is sure that he boarded the ship, and wants Salvo to make some inquiries.  Third, Mimi Augello has become absolutely unbearable in the office, and evidently at home as well -- Salvo receives a call from Livia, who after having spoken to Beba Augello, berates Salvo for keeping Mimi out on late-night stakeouts.  The problem is that Mimi hasn't been involved in any stakeouts whatsoever.  Throw in the Mafia, a television reporter who dislikes Montalbano, and a woman who will only cooperate with monarchists, and it all adds up to one heck of a dilemma.

While Camilleri brings his usual wit and wisdom to this novel, even at one point introducing a book into Salvo's library by Andrea Camilleri (which, by the way, just happens to shed a bit of light on the case),  the overarching theme running throughout the story is that of betrayal.  From the potter's field where the body is found (the location heralding back to the biblical story of Judas) to the Mafia and on into individual acts of betrayal, this thematic expression of deception adds a somber note that is punctuated with less humor than other novels in the Montalbano series.  And Montalbano is growing more weary, wondering how long he can continue to act as

"the poor puppeteer of a wretched puppet theater.  A puppeteer who struggled to bring off the performances as best he knew how. And for each new performance he managed to bring to a close, the struggle became greater, more wearisome."

But the good news for Montalbano fans is that there are a few more books waiting in the wings, so I wouldn't write Salvo off just yet.

I'm afraid I have to disagree with others who say that The Potter's Field is Camilleri's best Montalbano adventure so far, although I really enjoyed this book.  The characters didn't have their usual oomph (no glaring laughs coming from Catarella's antics, for example), the mystery's solution is a bit transparent, and actually, the book was a bit more on the serious side than I have come to expect from the author.  On the other hand, I follow the series more because of the character of Salvo Montalbano, who by now has become somewhat of an old friend.

Definitely recommended if you're following the series, but do start with book one and work your way through if you're considering this installment -- things will make so much more sense characterwise if you follow my advice on this one.

crime fiction from Italy

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