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la paura di montalbano

29 april 2015

La paura di Montalbano is a stray Montalbano book I hadn't read, now over a dozen years old; Andrea Camilleri is 89 and new titles are still appearing, so there's no telling how many more there will be till I catch up. I don't mind never catching up.

La paura consists of six stories, three short alternating with three long. The short stories, Camilleri explains, are not really detective stories; they're atmospheric vignettes – effects Camilleri wanted to achieve, and could achieve best with his standard settings and cast of characters. In the opening short story, "Giorno di febbre," Salvo Montalbano suffers through the title feverish day and witnesses an absurd crime and its aftermath while he's waiting in line at a pharmacy. The story works its way around to one of the author's favorite motifs: the professional who's dropped out of society and become a vagrant, seeking his own oblivion.

The second is called "Un cappello pieno di pioggia," "A Hatful of Rain" – which, as Montalbano himself observes, is the same as an old movie, and has about as much relation to the story as the movie's title did. Montalbano is in Rome and meets an old friend; later he meets a mugger … and then the two stray incidents intertwine.

The third is the title story, "La paura di Montalbano," best translated perhaps as "Montalbano Afraid." There are times when even the most jaded commissario finds himself personally struck by a crime and its criminal. At the end of this one, Salvo looks into the abyss and sees it as "uno specchio … che rifletteva la sua faccia [a mirror that reflected his own face]" (250).

The long stories are standard Montalbano Krimis, though more limited in focus, obviously, than full-length novels: perhaps they were threads of novels that never got wound into a coherent strand. In the first of these, "Ferito a morte," (or, "Mortally wounded"), a money-lender is found shot dead in his bedroom. Many people had reason to kill him; his only friend in the world seems to have been his niece Grazia. There's little reason to doubt her story that she stumbled upon the murderer and in turn shot him on his way out the door – until the murderer fetches up dead a few blocks away and turns out to be a mild, mentally-challenged delivery boy who wouldn't normally harm a fly. It's a classic of untelling and retelling a murder plot (to borrow Tzvetan Todorov's key observation about the detective story: one must first conceal the story in order to have the detective reconstitute it).

In "Il quarto segreto," the longest story in the volume, revolves around four secrets that our hero shares with his alinguistic sidekick Catarella. The murder here is less puzzle-like and more hard-boiled: an immigrant has fallen to death on a construction site. But was he an immigrant, and did he fall? And is his death linked to a series of shady "accidents" at other construction sites? Montalbano is particularly testy during this adventure, which involves carabinieri, aggravated detectives, and another in the line of many beautiful women who take an immediate shine to the commissario.

In the last long story, "Meglio lo scuro," Montalbano finds himself investigating a case from the year 1950 that is about to get as cold as they come. The last living witness spills her last earthly bean to our hero and promptly checks out, leaving Montalbano for once in need of his lieutenant Fazio's genius for reconstructing genealogies. They solve the case (Montalbano also gets a tutorial from his favorite housebreaker, to facilitate evidence-gathering), but what good will it do to reveal to the murderer the equivocal truth about her long-ago conduct? "Meglio lo scuro," as the title has it: darkness, figurative darkness, is better.

Camilleri, Andrea. La paura di Montalbano. 2002. Milano: Mondadori, 2012.