August Heat, by Andrea Camilleri

 

Translator: Stephen Sartarelli. If there is one thing that AUGUST HEAT, the tenth in the Inspector Montalbano series, does without a doubt, it is to make the reader feel the titular heat. The sweat and power of the sun is a constant presence, dominating the investigation and forming an oppressive, ubiquitous miasma: "Sitting on the veranda at Marinella, he thought he felt a hint of cool, but it was mostly a hypothesis of cool since neither the sea nor the air was moving."

Montalbano's girlfriend, Livia, is coming to stay for the summer season, but because of her extensive experience of being ignored by her paramour while he is called away on urgent police business, she commands him to find a holiday let for her friend Laura, together with Laura's husband Guido and their young, hyperactive son Bruno, so she will have things to do instead of being bored and alone. Montalbano attends to his task with his customary vigour, eventually lighting on an isolated but suitable villa by the sea, long abandoned by the German couple who own it as a result of various tragedies in their family. One senses that these tragedies were not entirely coincidental and are a harbinger of future complications, but more oblivious than the reader, Montalbano goes ahead and rents the villa on behalf of Livia's friends, who duly move in. Disaster constantly strikes, manifested by invasions of cockroaches, mice and then spiders – however, these are nothing compared with the terrifying disappearance of young Bruno and the family cat, together with a sinister discovery made by Montalbano while he searches for the lost boy.

Realising that the visitors' presence will needlessly complicate his investigations, Montalbano manipulates events so that they, including Livia, leave for home, clearing the way for him to interrogate a series of shady Sicilian builders, property speculators, and estate agents, uncovering all manner of dodgy practices. Despite the blistering heat, Montalbano and his regular band of assistants pursue their course with their usual zeal. Although I followed the plot with my usual enjoyment of Camilleri's novels, the typically offhand style is occasionally just too perfunctory. The central event took place some years ago, and most of the action once Livia and co have left consists of various shady suspects being summoned to the police station and investigated in an attempt to trip them up.

Montalbano is ever susceptible to female charms but, in loyalty to Livia (who has proved a useful excuse for escape on previous occasions) has never succumbed. However, in this story, he meets his match, which perhaps sets things up for some movement in his rather static relationship with Livia in future books.

Eventually, "The light breeze on the veranda had matured from infancy to adolescence and was making itself felt. He decided to seize this favourable moment when his thoughts weren't log-jammed by the heat, and consider rationally the investigation he had on his hands." The metaphor continues, and Montalbano, mainly by pursuing a few avenues that he'd omitted earlier, closes in on his man. Nevertheless, the denouement is engineered by someone else, rendering him a mere spectator, and a frustrated one to boot.

AUGUST HEAT is not the strongest of this charming series of books, though the superb translation and sheer good humour raises many a smile, not least in the passage of homage to Maj Sjowell and Per Wahloo, the Swedish writers of the ten-book Martin Beck series. If you have read the previous books by Camilleri, you'll enjoy this one regardless, but if you haven't, the story may seem somewhat flat and the finer points will be lost. As usual, the translation is utterly sympathetic and a work of art in its own right. The final footnote by the translator is well worth reading, in describing Camilleri's efforts to support the victims of Mafia violence.

Review first published at Euro Crime, July 2009.

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