By Phil Webster
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The Potter’s Field

This article is over 10 years, 9 months old
Andrea Camilleri
Issue 363

This excellent novel is the 13th of Andrea Camilleri’s Italian detective stories to be translated into English. If you want to escape with a bit of entertaining crime fiction written with a left wing slant, these are the books for you. Camilleri should be rated alongside the greats of crime writing: Raymond Chandler and (the Marxist) Dashiell Hammett.

Camilleri thankfully does not rely on the predominant crime story formula of shock, gore and serial killers – although this one does start with the discovery of a chopped-up body! Instead the Inspector Montalbano stories are characterised by three main elements.

Firstly, there is our flawed hero Montalbano himself – selfish and odd, but endearing and amusing. Here is a man who will avoid meeting his partner so that he can savour a good meal in his favourite restaurant without having to talk to anyone. Of course, every crime writer tries to create a detective who is in some way “different” or quirky, or has an interesting relationship with his sidekick, but the Montalbano creation is really quite refreshing.

Secondly there is the laugh out loud humour. Much of this involves Montalbano’s personality and his interactions with the other characters. There are also comic gems such as Officer Catarella with his linguistic difficulties. My first reaction to this was negative as I worried that the translator was making the character speak in the sort of corny, stereotyped language that writers often condescendingly put into the mouths of working class characters. But then I realised that this was mainly the way that the translator was tackling the difficult problem of translating the Sicilian dialect that features prominently in the original Italian novels.

The third element is Camilleri’s left wing politics. The now 86 year old Camilleri became a member of the Italian Communist Party in 1944. The books contain sideswipes at Berlusconi and plenty of references to the links between the Mafia, big business, corrupt politicians and police officers. One book, Rounding the Mark, starts off with Montalbano considering resignation from the police force because he is disgusted at the police brutality directed against protesters at the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001.

The only thing that slightly spoils a few books in the series – although not this one – is when Camilleri slips into brief paranormal descriptions such as an incident involving telepathy between twins. The Montalbano stories are generally down to earth, and these lapses are irritating.

Overall this book and indeed the whole series are to be recommended. It’s been said that the great thing about Raymond Chandler’s novels is that they take you into the world inhabited by his creation Philip Marlowe, its places and its characters. Read these stories and enter Montalbano’s world.

The Potter’s Field is published by Penguin, £7.99

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