Translated by Stephen Sartarelli
THE WINGS OF THE SPHINX is an utter delight. Reading any one of this series of short books about Inspector Salvo Montalbano and his colleagues in the Vigata (Sicilian) police is a wonderful experience. The author beautifully and precisely captures the humanity and humour underlying the tragedies of modern existence – somehow the corruption, the evil, the crimes and lack of sensitivity, the political correctness and the nannyism that we all endure seem not so bad when viewed through the warm and unflinching eyes of Montalbano, a passionate barometer of conscience who is incapable of compromise with any of these unwelcome entities.
The novel starts in brisk fashion when the body of a young woman is found in a dump. She was shot in the face, so her main distinguishing mark is a tattoo on her shoulder of what everyone at first thinks is a butterfly. Nobody can work out who the woman is, and when the results of the post mortem are in, the puzzle only deepens.
In the throes of what is sometimes called a mid-life crisis and at other times the male menopause, Montalbano is brooding on what to make of his life – whether to retire, whether to marry or break up with Livia – when the body is found. Irresistibly drawn to trying to discover what happened, he uncovers a fishy-seeming organisation underwritten by the Catholic church, in which vulnerable young women, usually immigrants from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, are "rescued" from clubs and casinos and retrained as housekeepers. It seems that the victim may have been one of these women.
Montalbano's detective skills are very sharp, and he soon gets pretty much to the bottom of what is going on. One interesting aspect of the novel is that it grips without being at all about the victim and her friends, who we don't get to know – a hard trick to pull off. As usual, one of the chief delights is the context of the Sicilian lifestyle, though it has to be said that although Montalbano enjoys his food in this novel, the meals are not described with the fevered ecstasy of previous books – perhaps he really is getting a bit old and jaded.
I loved THE WINGS OF THE SPHINX and the all-too-brief journey it took me on, into Sicilian life and the strong integrity of Montalbano as he surveys his wrecked country with knowningness yet refusal to accept the status quo in his insistence on standing up for principle and truth. His relationship with his police colleagues and with Livia is not as much in the foreground here as in some of the other novels, but even so there is much going on under the surface for the reader to enjoy, and plenty of sharp humour – beautifully enabled by the brilliant translation of the poet Stephen Sartarelli.
First published at Euro Crime, April 2010.