originally published as La caccia al tesoro, 2010
translated by (who else!) Stephen Sartarelli
"... it wasn't a fiction, but a reality, though a reality so absurd as to be very nearly a fiction."
When I opened this book yesterday afternoon, I knew that everything else on the planet would just have to wait because it was going to be my best friend for the next few hours. I even got up at 4:30 this morning to finish it because I wanted absolutely no noise, no interruptions, no nothing to come between me and the latest exploits of Inspector Salvo Montalbano. For me mystery series come and they go; sometimes I might try one or two before I beg off and move on looking for something better than the last -- but Camilleri's Montalbano novels are among my favorite books in my crime fiction library, not so much for their "whodunit" quality or for the crimes contained between their covers, but because of the people in these books. I've been with Montalbano and his crew since the beginning, so by now, in my head, they've become sort of like old friends. Treasure Hunt marks the 16th installment of this fantastic series, and it made me laugh out loud through much of the first half. While the actual crime solving feels like laziness on Camilleri's part (or so it seems to me), the novel is filled with all of the familiar components that make these novels consistently unique and a pleasure to read.
One day in the midst of a calm season for crime, criminals, and the cops, there's something new in Vigàta for all and sundry to see -- a banner hanging off of an apartment balcony belonging to Gregorio and Caterina Pamisano, "a couple of senile old dotards who happen to be religious fanatics," telling sinners to repent. A week later, another banner appears warning sinners that these "dotards" will punish them. As the third week rolls around, the cops take notice, or at least Montalbano, when a third banner warns
"WE WILL MAKE YOU PAY FOR YOUR SINS WITH YOUR LIFE!!!"
Salvo takes it seriously enough to order a municipal policeman to remove the banners. Not a good idea -- the residents, indeed two elderly siblings who are extremely religious -- start shooting at the cop. Down below, people are getting out of the way, as the shooters start to rain gunfire on the crowd. The arrival of a fire truck equipped with a long ladder allows Salvo to gain entry, and soon the situation is under control. The siblings are taken into custody, the elderly sister looking "as if she'd just stepped out of a horror novel," but there are more disturbing things found in the apartment, among them a "decrepit" inflatable doll laying in the brother's bed. It had lost some hair, "was missing an eye, had one deflated tit and little circles and rectangles of gray rubber scattered all over its body." As the author notes, "For a horror film, it wasn't a bad beginning." After everything's taken care of there, things slide back into crimeless tedium until later the police receive a call about a body in a dumpster which turns out to be another inflatable doll, identical to the one found earlier in the shooters' creepy apartment, down to the the little patches all over its body. While Salvo's busy trying to figure out what's going on, he remembers a letter he'd received and stuffed in a pocket, marked "Treasure Hunt" on the outside of the envelope. At first, it seems like a good diversion from the sheer ennui of waiting for something to happen, but soon things begin to go from "curious" to deadly serious, leading Salvo to realize that the treasure hunt may not be such a big joke after all.
Let me just get on with the negative bit first. Actually, there's only one, having to do with the real crime in this book, but sadly, if I say why this part is a disappointment, I'll give away the show so I really can't discuss it. Okay, I'm being purposely vague, but someone may thank me later. Or maybe not. If you're a serious crime fiction reader, you'll hit on the problem in no time.
The opening of the novel sets the tone for the rest of the book -- here not so much with the action scenes, but via the whole play on horror film/novel scenarios, beginning with the inside of the Palmisano's apartment. The crosses, the other rooms of bizarre things including a piano-playing rat in the darkness, the appearances of the brother and sister, the inflatable doll and Gregorio's reaction to Montalbano's examination of the doll on his bed all conjure up creepy images one would expect to find in a movie or book destined to be the stuff of nightmare, perfect for a dark and stormy night. Yet as Montalbano tries to come to terms with the fact that he seems to be the only one of his men unnerved by the experience, he also understands that what he saw "wasn't a fiction, but a reality, though a reality so absurd as to be very nearly a fiction." As events progress throughout the story, the reader will realize exactly how appropriate his thought turns out to be.
Even though the crime's solution may be nothing to write home about, as I'm so fond of saying, the crime solving and the actual police work is not really why I love and continue to read these novels -- it's all about the people, the places, and the writing, and above all, Inspector Montalbano, who manages to find himself in the strangest situations. The first part of the book is filled with laugh-out-loud funny scenes involving Salvo's handling of the two inflatable dolls, as well as a running gag about them being discovered by different people. There are the usual snarky references to ongoing social and political issues in Italy, even down to why the criminals seem to be taking time off. Livia and Salvo have words, the crew at the police station are once again in fine form, and Salvo's age is once again the focal point of ongoing worries that spark conversations between Montalbano One and Montalbano Two. Ever present through each and every novel -- and Treasure Hunt is no exception -- is Salvo's ongoing love affair with mouth-watering local cuisine, and Camilleri's seemingly effortless ability to drop the reader right into the Sicilian landscape.
Treasure Hunt is just one more book in an already excellent series of sixteen (there are more, but they haven't yet been translated); if you're reading this book for the crime plot it may feel a bit disappointing, but true fans will still find a lot to love here. As usual, my advice is to not start with book sixteen -- each book builds on the other so go back and start at the beginning.