Title: A Voice in the Night; Author: Andrea Camilleri/Stephen Sartarelli (Translator); Publisher: Picador/Pan Macmillan; Pages: 288; Price: Rs 450
Law and justice seem an uneasy, unlikely pair in our world where “networks” more often mean the deep, shadowy nexus of the political establishment, big business and organised crime which can influence the state’s instruments for their own ends. But there are always maverick policemen who can uphold the law — and ensure justice too.
Like Chief Inspector Salvo Montalbano in Sicily’s (fictional) Vigata town, who can take several unorthodox approaches and measures — unlikely to be found in any police manual — to both solve the crime and ensure the guilty, no matter how powerful or influential, get their just desserts.
In his 20th appearance, Italian author Andrea Camilleri’s honest, effective but markedly idiosyncratic policeman has to solve a case in which a robbery at a supermarket leads to the manager’s “suicide” after allegations of police inaction/threats. Alongside, there is the brutal murder of a young student, who happens to be the girlfriend of a prominent local politician’s son.
In fact, both cases have prominent political and Mafia overtones and Montalbano’s superiors and other officials, either complicit or afraid, seek to order him to play safe. But this admonition has never stopped him before, and he can soon find what direction he is being nudged into and fight back. Despite all the complications, our hero can still spring surprises that even astound his men, well used to him by now, leave alone the readers.
In this particular outing, he lies to or lays clever traps for suspects, hides and uses crucial evidence, including leaking it to the media, manages to convince his superiors to trust him, and carries out unauthorised searches with the connivance of his loyal and equally quirky subordinates, among others.
Finally, he takes direct action against a major but rather untouchable suspect, with the aid of some clothes pegs, a loaf of bread, a bundle of cotton and a roll of gauze, that leads to a shocking but not unjust outcome.
But Camilleri, who is his early 90s now but still going strong, does not serve us the Montalbano adventures only as intricately-plotted police proceedurals but also injects quite a bit of social and political commentary about his country and countrymen, their leaders and their governing structures (including a multiplicity of law enforcement agencies).
Then, while the stories are considerably dark, given their setting in the original homeland of the Mafia, there is a lightness of touch that makes them compulsive, as well as a range of humour, ranging from the slapstick to the surreal.
And Montalbano is a singular character.
This story, like a quite a few others, begins with our good Chief Inspector waking up and taking stock of his life, giving himself the shock of his life from a gift he accepts from a local fisherman acquaintance and then squabbling with his long-time girlfriend, Livia, who lives on the other end of the Italian peninsula, over telephone when she reminds him he has turned 58.
Going to work, his slow driving pisses off many, including a young man in a flashy car who insults him while overtaking him, but Montalbano, already smarting over his spat, comes across on him again at a service station, blocks his car, arrests him at gunpoint and subjects him to all kinds of health and official checks. (It is the same youth who reports the death of his girlfriend and becomes a suspect.)
The series’ greatest contribution is in showing that even in the Mafia heartland, its power is not absolute and there are many who fight against it — and succeed.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])