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l'età del dubbio

10 january 2011

Andrea Camilleri's Età del dubbio shows police commissioner Salvo Montalbano once again becoming a figure of desperately seductive interest to a beautiful younger woman. The course of May-September love rarely runs smooth, so at one point lovely coast-guard officer Laura dumps Salvo. He responds with rage.

And then checks himself. In one of his patented internal colloquies, Montalbano One asks Montalbano Two: if you really loved her, wouldn't you be depressed? Sorrowful? But not angry. Anger is something a child feels when a toy gets taken away. And your "love" interest in this attractive person you've barely met is likely to be that of a child in a shiny toy, not a human in another human.

As if more evidence were needed that Camilleri's detective novels are among the best world fiction of the present day, this scene late in L'età del dubbio does what great writing should do. Without stepping outside the characters or the plot, without going all novel-of-ideas on the situation or becoming sententious, Camilleri presents strong psychological insights. And they're all the better for being presented in the person of a fiftysomething, mildly lecherous, incorrigibly fabulating, impulsive, chainsmoking gourmand of a detective.

L'età del dubbio begins with Montalbano saving yet another young woman from being swallowed up in quicksand when a road washes away in front of her car. He feeds Vanna and even lends her a book. But he doesn't make a pass at her; she's not good-looking enough. Pig, you think, or perhaps not. After all, Montalbano doesn't make a pass at Laura either. She's magnetically drawn to him, but, deliberately or not, he keeps deflecting her attentions until it's too late. Montalbano is so disarming, and we identify so strongly with him, because he's genuinely good-natured – just ADD, slow on the uptake, and afflicted with the tunnel vision that makes him a good sbirro anyway.

Soon after the Vanna incident, crime enters the picture when a dead body is found floating in a dinghy. Police procedure reveals that the dead man's name is Émile Lannec. That name sounded vaguely familiar to me, and it does to Montalbano as well. Come to find that it's a name of a Simenon character (from a relatively early novel called Les Pitard, which I actually haven't read, though perhaps Simenon recycled names of characters; how could he have avoided it?) Is Montalbano (himself named after a crime writer) perhaps living more in intertextuality than in the real world?

His long-suffering partner Livia calls, and Salvo picks up the phone saying "Laura?" When she chews him out, he protests that he's been reading Petrarch. Then he reads Petrarch in earnest, and is all the more depressed by the contrast between text and reality. Meanwhile, a villain in the piece is named Livia, and Salvo is distraught every time his sidekick Mimí Augello uses her given name. More than most fictional detectives, Salvo Montalbano exists in a web of language rather than one of guns, fists, and the badge.

Camilleri, Andrea. L'età del dubbio. Palermo: Sellerio, 2008.