Natural Causes? Book Review of The Potter’s Field by Andrea Camilleri

When news came through recently that Andrea Camilleri had died at the age of 93 from natural causes – ie a heart attack, I wondered. Had the police checked the hospital CCTV for a suspicious-looking nurse hanging around, just waiting to slip into the room to deliver a syringeful of poison that would make it look like a heart attack? That’s what would have happened to an enemy of the mafia in one of his books.
I have developed the habit of watching ‘Inspector Montalbano’, the TV detective series set in Sicily, on Sunday evenings. To be honest, I prefer shows such as Spiral, Fargo or the Scandinavian stuff, which have just a little bit more bite. When Cateralla barges through the door yet again, it’s just a bit too much slapstick. What will happen next? Will he be pouring custard down the inspector’s trousers?
But I realised that I’d not read any of the books so I decided to try The Potter’s Field, reckoned to be one of Camilleri’s best in the series. I’d seen the TV episode some time ago and couldn’t remember all the details of the plot so it was reasonably fresh. And the book was good. I whupped through it in a couple of days, and I’ve not done that with a book for a long time. It starts with a dream in which Montalbano’s boss hammers on the door in a storm at night; he is a fugitive from the new Italian government led by prime minister, Toto Riina. Toto was the mafioisi who ordered the assassination of the anti-mafia prosecutors Falcone and Borsellino. Good start.
The mafia is a key player in the complex plot of this book. A corpse is found cut up into thirty pieces. Thirty pieces, geddit? From the thirty pieces of silver Judas was paid in the bible for betraying Christ. And the body is buried in a potter’s field – Judas’ resting place. So the victim is obviously the victim of a mafia vendetta on a traitor. Or is he? Betrayal is a theme running through the book – Mimi, the inspector’s long standing and trusted sidekick, is acting strangely, and the inspector suspects that he is mixed up in the murder. Similarly, Montalbano betrays his partner Livia with a female colleague.
A flawed hero? Love it. And there is a femme fatale, the delicious Dolores Alfano, who has a pivotal role in the complex plot. And then there are the cheeky bits. For instance, the inspector refers to a Camilleri novel he has read with its ‘quite far-fetched plot’.
Any quibbles? Well there is the slapstick with Catarella. And Camilleri reproduces local Sicilian dialect in Cateralla’s speech directly. Here he introduces the tasty femme fatale: ‘Right ‘ere, Chief. Inna waitin’ room. Says ‘er name’s Dolorosa. I say it ought to be Amorosa! Says she wants a talk t’yiz poissonally in poisson.’ Maybe a bit at the start and then the odd expression or word to suggest the dialect would have been better? I was surprised that there weren’t more lingering Dickensian descriptions of food, just the use of a few deft brushstrokes to tickle your taste buds, as with setting, scenery and character. Deft. Good word, that. As with Jay Rayner, the best meal descriptions are for the bad experiences:
‘He realised his grave mistake at once. How could they call arancini these rice balls fried in hundred-year-old oil and cooked by a chef suffering from violent hallucinations? And how acidic the meat sauce was! He spat the rest of the arancini he had in his mouth into the sea, and the remaining whole and half arancini met the same watery end.’
The complex plot resolves itself with a surprising twist and, like one of Montalbano’s (good) meals, leaves you with a feeling of replete satisfaction. Note to myself: must try more Italian food. Tumazzo and ‘ncascatia. Sounds half decent, that. Though I might give the arancini on the Vigata-Messina ferry a miss.

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