The Voice of the Violin by Andrea Camilleri, trs Stephan Sartarelli

Inspector Morse, Sicilian style
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The Independent Culture

This being Italy, there are evident differences too. Where Morse is shambling and beer-drinking, Montalbano is fit from swimming every morning in the sea by his beachfront home; and rather than drinking warm beer, he is a connoisseur of Sicilian cuisine, his meals as carefully chronicled as Morse's tastes in classical music.

The Voice of the Violin is the fourth of Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano novels to be published in English, all entertainingly translated by Stephan Sartarelli. As in many works of this genre, much of the reader's pleasure is provided by an immersion in local atmosphere: think of the world of Michael Dibdin's Commissario Aurelio Zen or Donna Leon's Venetian police inspector, Guido Brunetti. Camilleri's local colour is even more rooted than theirs, with casual references to such Italian commonplaces as "a Belfiore martyr's moustache and beard", "Pippo Baudo" and "Boldoni's ladies" - 19th century revolutionaries, a TV personality and a society painter - all helpfully explained in the translator's notes at the back of the book.

The storyline is spun around the discovery of a woman's naked body in a deserted house: she has been suffocated while making love and all her clothing has disappeared. Montalbano's principal task is to find out who killed her, but most of the interest of the book is taken up with various sub-plots: will Montalbano get romantically involved with the victim's attractive friend, Anna; what will happen to François, a young Tunisian boy that Montalbano and his fidanzata, Livia, took under their wing in a previous book in the series (The Snack Thief, now out in paperback); how will Montalbano deal with the attempts of a superior to take him off the case?

In fact, all of the Montalbano novels are as sloppily plotted as a Raymond Chandler book about Philip Marlowe. The plot line simply doesn't interest Camilleri. If it did, Montalbano, having established soon after he discovered the body of Michela Licalzi that she carried a mobile, might have thought to check the phone records to see if anyone had rung her. Had he done so, the story could have ended right there.

But an early conclusion would have deprived the reader of sampling the delights of Camilleri's fertile imagination, the inexhaustible fund of minor characters he invents, and the equally numerous surprising situations he places them in. Take Catarella, the police station's hapless officer, whose Sicilian dialect is rendered in these, obviously American, translations as a sort of Brooklyn patois: "What Langwich was I asposta speak? We spoke 'Talian, Chief." As a subversive joke, he is put forward to learn computing science for the office, but he turns out to have a talent for it, and by the end of the book his brief foray into higher education has also corrected his 'Talian. And somehow that matters much more to the reader than the unsurprising fact that Montalbano gets his killer.