As The Paper Moon opens, Salvo Montalbano, a fifty-something police Inspector in the fictional town of Vigata, Sicily, is summoned to see a distraught woman, Michaela Pardo, whose brother Angelo has unaccountably disappeared.
Salvo’s search of the missing man’s house soon reveals Angelo’s dead body, in a provocative scene that can leave no doubt that the death is not accidental. After his initial discovery of the body, Salvo’s investigation develops into a satisfying detective story in the Sherlock Holmes tradition, with the complex interplay of the Italian political culture and Sicilian organized crime providing an edgy, sharp focus.
“Mimi” Augello, Salvo’s handsome but vain second-in-command, is the acceptable face of policing so far as Salvo’s political superiors are concerned, and is increasingly tied up with large-scale drugs and smuggling investigations on their behalf. Mimi’s gradual evolution across the series from wayward playboy to excessively dedicated parent has been amusingly touching; and the way in which Salvo uses Mimi as a front with his superiors in order to carry on unchecked his own eccentric, intuition-fuelled, erratic and emotional investigations is wonderfully wicked.
The other two main members of Salvo’s team, the straight-as-an-arrow, loyal Fazio and the hilarious, linguistically challenged Catrarella, are used to good effect in this novel; the relationship between Salvo and Caterella has become more overtly affectionate as Salvo has come to appreciate Catarella’s simple devotion and dedication to whatever task his master sets him.
The Paper Moon is the ninth of Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano series, translated by the poet Stephen Satarelli with his usual exceptional sympathy and erudition. Those who have read the previous eight titles will know what to expect, and will not be disappointed. To the contrary, The Paper Moon contains few, if any, of the minor weaknesses of some of the previous titles, and combines successfully the elements of a satisfying mystery, a political satire, a celebration of the traditional ways of Sicilian life (and of course food), convincing characters, and an overarching masterly yet delicate authorial touch. I loved this book. I think it is one of the very best Montalbano novels, but would slightly hesitate to recommend it to readers new to this author because a full appreciation depends on relationships and nuances that have been built up over the series.
These layerings of emotion and depth do not detract from a lean, sexy, upfront and delightfully devious plot. Unconstrained by the presence of Livia, his girlfriend — merely a telephonic presence in this book — Salvo follows his own path, interrogating a series of beautiful, uninhibited and fabulous women – all strong, independent and headstrong, as the mystery of Angelo’s death seems to become more complex. In the end, Salvo’s intuition and sheer persistence lays bare the damage done by people who are governed by their elemental emotions – a denoument reflecting the modern tragedy of a beautiful country betrayed by those who run it.