Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Inspector Montalbano between Scylla and Charybdis

Andrea Camilleri's A Voice in the Night is, by my count, the twentieth Inspector Montalbano mystery. Because the translation is copyrighted 2016, I believe it is the most recent. I have not read every one of the first nineteen in the series, and a reader who starts with this one may wonder about the relationship between Montalbano and Livia, his main squeeze, who appears in this book only on the telephone, and his relations with other reappearing characters.

Montalbano in this book is 58-years-old. He's an experienced Sicilian homicide detective who has to—you will excuse the reference—thread his way between the Scylla of the local mafia and the Charybdis of a corrupt political system. Montalbano may be able to solve the crime, but there's no guarantee that justice will be done.

This tension, between a (relatively) honest police detective and forces well beyond any individual's control is one of the things that makes the Montalbano mysteries interesting. They are also interesting puzzles, and Camilleri does not, for the most part, cheat the reader. (He will, as we're coming down to the denouement, not reveal exactly what Montalbano has planned, only that he has plans.) And the books are, for me at least, convincing pictures of what a certain slice of contemporary Sicilian life is like.

Montalbano has to solve two crimes in A Voice in the Night: A routine supermarket burglary turns unroutine when the store manager is found hanging in his office—and forensic evidence suggests he was murdered. Almost simultaneously a lovely young woman is found brutally slaughtered in the apartment of one Giovanni Stranglo. Stranglo has a solid alibi, but, as it happens, his father is the president of the province. Traveling with Montalbano as he works with his staff to solve the two cases (we never leave the inspector's point of view; my preference in a mystery), we watch him uncover clues and red herrings and—surprise!—solve the crimes.

The book is not perfect. In an attempt, I suspect, to suggest the Sicilian dialect, the translator has one of the thankfully minor characters talk like this: "My virry best wishes wit' all my 'eart for a rilly, rilly long life an' alla 'appiness an' 'ealthiness inna world, Chief!" I find a little of this goes a long, long way. Also Camilleri wrote the book when Silvio Berlusconi was Italy's prime minister, so there are a few topical references that are outdated.

Nevertheless, for readers who have been following Inspector Montalbano's career, A Voice in the Night is a creditable entry in the series. And for mystery lovers who do not know the detective, it's time to make his acquaintance.

Monday, December 19, 2016

How to write and publish a mystery

I will be presenting a program on How to Write and Publish a Mystery at the Silas Bronson Library in Waterbury, CT, on Saturday, January 21, at 2:00. Hope to see friends and new faces there.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

What do we really know about our parents?

I requested a review copy of Alexandra Burt's novel The Good Daughter because the premise is interesting: What do we really know about our parents? "Dahlia Waller remembers an early childhood filled with stuffy cars, seedy motels, and traveling the country under assumed names before mysteriously settling in Aurora, TX. But as an adult, having distanced herself from her mother, she has so many questions." The novel slowly, slowly, slowly answers those many questions.

When the book opens, Dahlia is in her early 30s having returned to Aurora after fifteen years away. She and Memphis, her mother, had settled in Aurora when Dahlia was about twelve after a childhood on the road, home schooled, and regularly taking off in the middle of night for another town, another state. Her mother would not enroll her in public school because officials wanted "paperwork" and Memphis had no paperwork, wanted to answer no questions.

In chapter one, Dahlia goes jogging in the woods near their rented house and comes across a beaten and partially buried young woman and is apparently attacked herself. The young woman is in a coma for most of the book, and whenever the action flags, we're reminded that she's in the hospital waiting to awaken and reveal who she is and what happened to her.

Dahlia narrates her own story throughout the book, but Quinn's story is told in the third person. While Burt is coy about revealing Quinn's relationship to Dahlia, most readers will have twigged to it long before they're told. We read about Quinn's sexual initiation in a loving, blissful scene in the woods with a Hispanic boy who eventually becomes Aurora's sheriff. The boy leaves 17-year-old Quinn in post-coital languor, and three violent, filthy, brutal hunters find her, beat, and gang rape her. One consequence is that Quinn becomes infertile.

Nevertheless, Quinn marries, Nolan, the dissolute son of a decayed Texas family who wants nothing more than a son and heir. They live together for ten years in the family farmhouse a ways outside of Aurora and Quinn apparently never tells her husband she cannot conceive. One evening in the middle of a hurricane, a feeble-minded and pregnant young girl, Tain Fish, shows up at the farm. Quinn takes the girl in, and buries the stillborn fetus not far from the farmhouse in which she and Nolan live.

Now living on this isolated farm: Quinn, ten-year married who cannot have a baby; Nolan, soured on his marriage but wants nothing but a baby; and Tain, a simple, compliant young girl who has demonstrated her fertility. What do you think happens?

I do not what to give away much more of the story. Perhaps other readers will be enchanted by the improbabilities, coincidences, and cliches that fill The Good Daughter. For example, if the mother had a loving sexual experience with the sheriff as a boy, wouldn't you expect the daughter to have a loving sexual relationship with the sheriff's son, now a cop? I would and she did.

I had no problem with the switch in point of view from Dahlia's first person to Quinn's third person. I did have a problem late in the book when Quinn is abruptly telling her own story. I do not understand the function of Aella, a conjure woman who lives alone in the woods, tells fortunes, and concocts herbal potions and creams. I found her unnecessary to the story and a distraction. I also had a problem with the last fifty or sixty pages of a very long—368 pages—book by which time I had figured out Quinn's story but which she tells Dahlia in dribs and drabs and teases the reader. On page 282: "She has been holding on to it [the story] for many years, and now it is her obligation to release it from her memory." But she doesn't for another fifty pages or so.

I'm afraid that after the first couple chapters, I found neither the characters nor the situation plausible. I did read The Good Daughter to the bittersweet end, but I also found it easy to put down. But that just may be me; other readers may find Dahlia, Memphis, Tain and the rest of the cast both believable and engaging.