Andrea Camilleri: Voice of the Violin
(An Inspector Montalbano Mystery, translated by Stephen Sartarelli)
(Hardcover), ISBN 0-670-03143-7
One of the great boons of reviewing is that you necessarily find yourself reading books you otherwise almost certainly would not read -- in some cases, that you wouldn't ordinarily even pick up. Often enough, you discover exactly why you'd normally pass the book by, but on not infrequent occasions you find an absolute gem … a book that makes all of the rest worthwhile.
Voice of the Violin, my introduction to the writing of Andrea Camilleri and his character Salvo Montalbano, qualifies as one such book. Every time I came to the end of a session of reading it I found myself grinning all over from sheer pleasure.
Which is odd, because Camilleri writes a full-blooded detective story about frequently unpleasant subject matter. A minor traffic accident draws Sicilian cop Montalbano into discovering the naked, murdered body of a beautiful young wife, Michela Licalzi. Immediately before her death, Michela experienced both vaginal and anal intercourse. But forensics finds no secretions within her body to work with, and all her clothes and personal belongings have been removed from the scene.
Some of those personal belongings were valuable -- notably her jewelry, which she kept in her handbag. But where was the sense in her murderer removing all the rest? Unless, of course, the other items might in some way offer a clue to the murderer's identity.
Montalbano must work through not only the mystery but also the Sicilian police and other politics, the complexities of Michela Licalzi's romantic and other liaisons, and a pair of linked crises in his own emotional life. An immediate attraction between Montalbano and the dead woman's best friend, Anna Tropeano, further exacerbates his emotional turmoil.
This might all make Voice of the Violin sound like a weighty, somewhat worthy, somewhat grueling novel. Public comparisons between Camilleri's Montalbano and Georges Simenon's Maigret seem to confirm such preconceptions.
Such comparisons strike me as well justified -- if you like Maigret (or Mark Hebden's Pel series, or Janwillem van de Wetering's Amsterdam Cops series, or Sjowall & Wahloo) you'll love Voice of the Violin. But the comparisons also obscure the astonishing lightness of touch that Camilleri achieves. He's a master of creating character or conjuring up a scene with just a few deft brush-strokes. At the same time, Montalbano's rather quirky morality and passion for good food -- both very lightly and often humorously depicted-- manage to become almost additional characters in their own right.
Although really quite a short novel -- the publisher released it in a small format to bump up the page-count a bit -- Voice of the Violin proves to be an immensely satisfying one.
It's also a very complete one. When speaking of good novels, one often expresses disappointment at reaching the last page. But in the case of Voice of the Violin, Camilleri crafts his tale so well that in fact this wasn't -- at least for this reviewer -- true. As with one of those meals Montalbano so much enjoys, the last mouthful perfectly satiates, and even a morsel more would be a surfeit.
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