Sicily always sounds like a good idea. A year in to a pandemic, an Italian island escape sounds like heaven on earth. With the small matter of the aforementioned pandemic my only recourse to scratch such an itch was to visit the island via some good old fashioned crime fiction. Enter The Shape of Water. Not that weird film where a woman falls in love with a sea creature. That’s illegal where I come from for a start. But the first book in the Inspector Montalbano series, penned by Andrea Camilleri.
Montalbano’s name first cropped up in my life many years ago when visiting my former barber. Business, not social. An old Italian gent, during the small talk that invariably happens while someone chops away at your hair with a pair of scissors, he told me about the television series he had been watching recently. After giving me his run down on Keeping Up With The Kardashians, he also mentioned Montalbano in passing. Fast forward a few years and I recognised the name as the first three books were featured in a Kindle sale for 99p. For 33 pence a book I could afford to take the gamble.
The gamble however seemingly didn’t pay off. Over the years I attempted to start The Shape of Water on numerous occasions. Camilleri’s style of writing is rather forthright and can at times be quite wordy. Combining this with the amount of information being thrust upon me in the opening throes of the novel and I admitted defeat again and again. Step forward my local library’s online audiobook service. Together we managed to crack the case, listening to the first chapter allowed me to immerse myself in the tale. From that point on I flitted between the audiobook and my Kindle as Montalbano went to work.
Work that, as we find out early on, Montalbano likes to do thoroughly. Albeit in his own manner. He is a detective strong in his morals, cut from the same cloth as Georges Simenon’s Maigret with a hint of the anti-hero thrown in for good measure. Indeed, I would not have been surprised to find this story a continuation novel of the Maigret series, just displaced to Sicily and dragged kicking and screaming into the early 90s where sex, drugs and rock and roll are talked about in an even more matter of fact way than early 20th century Paris. And yes, all three get a mention. Even rock and roll.
I am always intrigued as to how authors come about naming their works. The beauty of The Shape of Water can be found in the fact that the manner in which the title rears its head is a key to helping the reader understand the text, not solely as the memorable quote of the piece. ‘“Water does’t have any shape!” I said, laughing. “It takes the shape you give it.”’ This is a spoiler free zone naturally, so I will say no more on the matter.
Given its brevity, The Shape of Water teeters on the brink of being convoluted. It certainly feels as if the depth of the plot could have been stretched out in to a longer tale. Here I again nod towards the forthright manner in which Camilleri writes. On the plus side the reader can paint the picture the words conjure themselves, unshackled by specifics. Otherwise it could be construed as information overload without too much spoon feeding.
Overall this is a story seemingly driven by the intent of establishing the character of Montalbano. The very enjoyable police procedural that adds dressing is a way of showing how the main protagonist and the other characters around him operate. Having finally got 33p worth of story I can confirm that it was great value for money and that I will be back in Sicily to read book number two, The Terra-cotta Dog, in future. I’d call that a successful debut.