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AUGUST HEAT (2009)
trans. by Stephen Sartarelli
§ Detectives find corpses, even when they're not supposed to, as if their profession guarantees no coincidence will be viewed as unreasonable. In August Heat, some friends of Montalbano's girlfriend Livia rent a villa that turns out to have a corpse stashed in a trunk... which is in a hidden basement, an illegal floor concealed by some sandy fill.
Some readers might not like the way this installment of the Montalbano series starts out, as it's more like a mildly funny mainstream novel than the de rigueur corpse-and-a-fast-kick-in-the-balls setup of the contemporary crime novel. But if you bear with it, adapt to the groove, the bizarre story of Montalbano's friends who rent this villa in an August heatwave, go crazy when their three year old son disappears into this unknown basement, then you'll get to the corpse... and the amusing fallout from this grim discovery when everyone blames the hapless Montalbano for this unsettling development rather than being forever grateful for the rescue of the bratty three year old Bruno and his cat Ruggero.
There's plenty of incidental information here about how business goes down in the old clan driven society of Sicily and the nepotism and corruption that's endemic and difficult to navigate for any policeman trying to follow a credible sense of justice. As usual, Camilleri uses Montalbano to sound off about Italian politics, literature and writing.
'(Montalbano) sat outside until eleven o'clock, reading a good detective novel by two Swedish authors, husband and wife, in which there wasn't a page without a ferocious and justified attack on social democracy and the government. In his mind Montalbano dedicated the book to all those who did not deign to read mystery novels because, in their opinion, they were only entertaining puzzles.' (p. 116)
Not so long ago this sort of veiled advertising would've been dismissed as "authorial intrusion", a form of propaganda that steps outside the aesthetic goal of the objective narrative, i.e. just keep out of it, stick to the story on hand, sir. But of course it can be argued that Montalbano's opinions are essential to the understanding of his character, so... so what if he has opinions on writing? He's literate, isn't he, reads books, isn't necessarily a shill for the author.
No? How about Montalbano's thoughts after his telephone conversation with Dr. Arqua: "Nice exchange. Terse and crisp as a dialogue from one of Vittorio Alfieri's tragedies." Well, whatever you think of this, it's undeniably clever and shows that Camilleri knows damn well that's he's a good writer in full control of his chops, like a jazz musician who can move modally through the scales without losing the theme.
As usual, there are some interesting lines:
'Having a Ferrari in a small town was like keeping a lion in your apartment's bathroom' (re Spitaleri, the developer, p.72)
' Italy was still servile, obeying at least two masters, America and the Church' (p.113)
For anyone who has read Camilleri's novella, The Fourth Secret, some of the action will seem deja vu, as if it's been welded into August Heat as a back story. Montalbano and his Sergeant visit a construction site, use force to extract some information from the night watchman (has a criminal record) who assumes they are mafiosi. While this off-the-books vigilante action is distasteful to Montalbano, it nevertheless thrills the reader who can appreciate that on this occasion that mutatis mutandis can be achieved.
Perhaps the main reason why Camilleri's Montalbano novels succeed is because they deliver a clear sense of morality. In the vast majority of contemporary mystery writings, morality is incidental to the 'puzzle'.
It might be the heat. The narrative becomes giddy in places, the action delirious. Montalbano returns to his house late on the August 15 holiday, finds his veranda has been occupied and trashed by some young day-trippers. Insults are exchanged and Montalbano punches out one of the punks. His frustration is historic, like a car engine running wild after too many klicks. He's lost control of the case, like a director losing control of his diva. Adriana is never quite real, is more like a menae, a mythological goddess sent to torment the detective as he leaves the summer, enters the cooling season. Once again, the story is a test: does Montalbano succeed or fail... or fall into the flaming ambiguity of middle age?
Uneven, with some flashes of genius and a good measure of self-loathing, August Heat is bound to annoy many Montalbano fans who expect him to be perfect forever.
© LR April 2017
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