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morte in mare aperto

27 september 2016

Morte in mare aperto is a late collection of stories by Andrea Camilleri, supposedly about the "young" Salvo Montalbano, though it's hard to place them in the temporal canon of his adventures. They're not perhaps among his classic stories, but as one often says of great series, they offer a chance "to spend more time with the characters."

"La stanza numero 2" is a room in a fourth-rate hotel. Montalbano and his fidanzata Livia watch the hotel burn down one night, as they've been driving by quite by chance. Six men escape, but there must have been a seventh person there, in Room 2, which was either empty or occupied depending on who you talk to. The hotel stays open by the sufferance of the mafia, who appreciate its low, low mafia rates (free, if you're wondering). So clearly the arson must have something to do with the protection arrangement, or the affairs of the many mafiosi who pass through? One would think. But in the event, the incident is practically an accident, and motivated by passion rather than criminal intrigue.

In "Doppia indagine," two cases coincide but don't blend. A rich woman disappears: is passion to blame here, or her gambler husband's greed? And some jitterbugs on motorbikes shoot up the car Montalbano and Mimí Augello are driving – again, for love or money or revenge?

The title story, "Morte in mare aperto," is just that, a death on the open sea. I am not sure if, realistically speaking, the Vigàta police should be investigating a suspicious shooting death on a fishing boat. Shouldn't that be the province of the Sicilian Coast Guard, or something? But I'm not going to tell Montalbano what and what not to investigate. A sailor named Cipolla has killed the motorman of the boat he works on – by accident, Cipolla insists.

In "Il biglietto rubato" – heh, that translates to "The Purloined Letter," well done, maestro – a promiscuous barmaid disappears, and then turns up dead, the result of "un doppio errore," a double mistake, as Montalbano terms it (160). He and Fazio shouldn't even have been investigating this one, as the woman is of age and has left Vigàta of her own free will: but sometimes another errore on top of all the others solves the mystery.

"La transazione," "The Transaction," the deal, is set in 1981, at the time of the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. Although Salvo's father is still alive (he dies early in the series of novels), the rest of the setting would be eerily identical to that of Montalbanos set in the 2010s (a phenomenon I call accordion time). The title deal is struck between mafia families in order to scam gullible investors: a fraudulent report of a robbery leads to a minor (in the mafia's scheme of things) spree of murders, and it takes Montalbano (don't bullshit a bullshitter?) to see through the muddied appearances.

"Come voleva la prassi," which means something like "According to Protocol," starts with a device that Camilleri loves: Montalbano is dreaming, and then woken in the middle of the most absurd dream-arc to deal with a telephone call from Catarella and another dead body. This body belongs to an escort from Eastern Europe, and since Montalbano had just been dreaming of a sex-traffickers' auction, his dreamwork can't help but mesh with his police work. The story is ultimately extremely grim, but Camilleri's work is not, overall, as light as its considerable humor would suggest.

"Un'albicocca," or at least the pit of an apricot, is the ostensible reason why a fashionable young woman has driven her car off a cliff minutes before Salvo and Livia happen on the scene. It looks like an accident … too much like an accident. It looks like the work of a stranger … too much like the work of a stranger …

"Il ladro onesto," the honest thief, is a principled catburglar who takes only what he needs, even if it means leaving half the contents of someone's wallet behind. A frequent device in the Montalbano novels – Salvo's possession of a set of irresistible burglar's tools – is explained by their brief partnership.

Camilleri sets up little bits of plot intrigue and then knocks them over too quickly for the most part. But for a completist like me who has woven the rhythms of his prose into his life, Morte in mare aperto is a wonderful treat.

Camilleri, Andrea. Morte in mare aperto e altre indagine del giovane Montalbano. Palermo: Sellerio, 2014.