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Sicilian inspector takes the heat

Andrea Camilleri and his Inspector Salvo Montalbano have come to feel like old friends whom I am always happy to see and to report on to our mutual acquaintances.

From the book jacket
From the book jacketRead more

The Potter's Field

By Andrea Camilleri

Translated from the Italian

by Stephen Sartarelli

Penguin. 288 pp. $15

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Reviewed by Peter Rozovsky

Andrea Camilleri and his Inspector Salvo Montalbano have come to feel like old friends whom I am always happy to see and to report on to our mutual acquaintances.

In The Potter's Field, the 13th novel in the Sicily-based series, Salvo goes to bed with Ingrid. Out of bed, his choice of reading matter, always a delight to Camilleri's readers, is especially delicious this time. (OK, I'll give it away: Salvo, whose reading in previous books has included mystery novels by the Belgian Georges Simenon and the Swedish Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, this time chooses a novel by Andrea Camilleri.)

The potter's field of the title refers to a bit of southwestern Sicily where a corpse turns up in a cave. Typically for a Montalbano novel, the investigation becomes one of mob connections, heated emotions, and family secrets. But crime, investigation, and solution are the least of the Montalbano novels. Every word is a commentary, sometimes wry, sometimes righteously angry, sometimes touching, on the protagonist's political, social, professional, and personal worlds. To choose just one typical example, "Ingrid's husband was a known ne'er-do-well, so it was only logical that he should turn to politics."

If the plots don't change much from book to book, the depth of feeling with which they are related does. In recent series entries, such as Excursion to Tindari or The Patience of the Spider, Salvo regards his lover, Livia, with ever-increasing tenderness and wonder even as their squabbling drives each of them nuts. Here, Livia barely appears, but the political gibes, as barbed as ever, are delivered with greater concision even as they ripen into a kind of weariness at the state of the world. Salvo has aged from his 40s into his mid-50s as the series has progressed. Camilleri, 68 when the first book appeared, turned 86 in September. In The Potter's Field, Salvo feels the pain of a friend's betrayal more sharply than his younger self would have, and his kinship with his fellow creatures even turns him briefly off seafood after he admires the fish at an aquarium in Genoa. (Can I have veal milanese, he asks a waiter. "Sure," the waiter replies, "if you go to Milan." Salvo settles for an excellent plate of fried sole.)

The Sicilian Mafia is not immune from this increasing tenderness. No one hates the Mafia more than Camilleri and Salvo, and no one recognizes at the same time that the mob is as much a part of the Sicilian land and seascape as are the rocks, the baking sun, and the sea. Such is the Mafia's persistence that even a mob-hater like Camilleri can voice a kind of reluctance at the passing of old-line mob rituals in favor of brainless point-and-shoot bloodshed:

"With the old Mafia, it was different. They explained, informed, and clarified. Not aloud, of course, or in print. No. But through signs.

"The old Mafia were experts in semiology . . . ."

There follows a list of what it means when a murder victim is found with:

a thorny branch of prickly pear placed on the body.

his hands cut off.

a rock inside his mouth.

all his teeth pulled out. ("We did it because he ate too much.")

and other bodily desecrations. And, in a concession to their common humanity, Camilleri permits the ancient gangster Balduccio Sinagra a measure of regret for his past (and, in the bargain, a clue to the killing that drives the book):

"I used to be in favor [of capital punishment]," the old man added. ". . . Then I realized my mistake, because there's no remedy for death."

No one is better than Camilleri at saying things funny rather than just saying funny things. That is, Camilleri won't just put a funny line in a character's mouth, but his entire syntax, his way of building a sentence, is a delicious wink to the reader that something is up. One smiles well before one gets to the punch line. And, as a copy editor, I like the book because when Montalbano bursts into the pathologist Pasquano's office and finds the doctor out and a box of cream-filled pastries left behind, "Having finished the first cannolo, he took another."

That's cannolo, singular, not cannoli, plural, and the translation gets it right. I seethe when a waiter or waitress at an Italian restaurant offers me bruschetta and pronounces its bruSHetta, instead of bruSKetta, and when some fast-food place urges me to "Have a panini!" I curse the saints; panini, like cannoli, is plural.

So, thanks to Camilleri's ever-excellent translator, Stephen Sartarelli, for respecting the rules of good grammar and for keeping my blood pressure down.