This wonderful book was first published in 1994, but is as fresh today as it was the year it was written. The plot is simple: a man's body is discovered in a car in what is euphemistically called the Pasture, the red light district of Vigata, a small town in Sicily. The victim, Silvio Luparello, was a politician on the brink of success: unusually for Italy, he has an unblemished record. Not only is his body found in compromising circumstances, but according to the post mortem he died of natural causes. Why should this apparently upright citizen take such a risk on the eve of his success? Even more strangely, no sooner is the death announced than Luparello's lawyer, widely thought to be the architect of his successful career, joins forces with his chief rival for political office to sew up the election.
Inspector Salvo Montalbano is the detective faced with this puzzling case. He is under pressure from various powerful quarters to close it, but several things don't add up, in particular the discovery of a very expensive piece of jewellery near the crime scene, and the question of how the car could have got to its final, grim destination. Just as water takes the shape of whatever vessel it is in, so the clues and witness statements seem to shift in whatever direction Montalbano pushes.
The beauty of this book is in the evocation of place: the way in which the townspeople of all types live; the background of endemic political corruption; and the ways in which honest men like Montalbano have evolved to live with it – presented with wry, understated humour. Above all, though, is the sense of place, in which the family of the victim, Montalbano's colleagues, friends (male and female), witnesses and townspeople, are all portrayed tellingly.
Gradually, Montalbano finds out more about the strange circumstances of Luparello's death. First it seems that the wife of the victim's rival is responsible. Yet the more Montalbano investigates, the more it seems to him that he is being led by the nose. He keeps on digging, interviews everyone, talks his boss (in a lovely scene) into letting him continue despite all attempts to make him close the case, and eventually solves the crime.
THE SHAPE OF WATER is one of those books whose appeal lies not in the detective aspects, though those are certainly satisfying, but in the characters that populate the story. Everyone seems to walk from real life into the pages, and when they leave, you can imagine them returning to their daily lives. I loved everything about this book, and am especially thankful that there are several more novels in this series that I have yet to read.