I tried to join a book club tonight at my local library. I have wanted to join one for years and this was my chance. I arrived a few minutes late and the woman at the desk said I had just missed the book group who meet at the library then move elsewhere, to somewhere with tea and cake, I now imagine.
"Did you see the group of ladies?" she asked.
I had seen five or so middle aged women going out the library when I arrived. "You might be able to catch them."
I raced outside in hot pursuit and chased round a corner. But they had got into a car and I suddenly lost my nerve. Going to a book group was one thing but stopping a car full of people I did not know, like a highwayman, was another. The ladies also looked quite big. And I was not sure I would fit in, literally and figuratively.
So, I trooped him and Credo will have to be the repository for my thoughts on the book club's book of the month, Andrea Camilleri's The Snack Thief. The book is an Inspector Montalbano Mystery.
The story is about a guy who is stabbed to death in a lift who has been having an affair with his Tunisian cleaning lady who meets him in his office for tri-weekly trysts ... only he may be being blackmailed and his death linked to a Tunisian fisherman who is shot by a Tunisian patrol boat while on an Italian fishing boat.
But what it is really about is the inspector, a gourmond who is summed up by the figure in the dustjacket eating dinner while a mysterious man looms in the distance.
It seems the key to making a good detective is that they must have some sort of passion, like women or gambling. Morse had his classical music, bitter and classical cars. I think Rebus is probably a boozer. Montalabno is a hopeless foodie.
In one crucial scene near the end, the inspector is facing a shady character in his own home, and is in some danger and conduct the whole confrontation while eating. He does not invite his quarry to share, save for allowing him to get his own glass of tap water.
"Montalabno felt his rage growing; one more word would surely have been a mistake. He reached out with one hand, brought the dish of ice cream nearer, and began to eat."
Camilleri uses a dizzying number of names. I scrawled them out on the back of the book as I read and I think there were almost 40 names by page 40. Many of them never appear again. Perhaps it is a self-conscious device: you are bamboozled by so many characters and feel a disorientation akin to trying to work out who the culprit is. The sense of mystery is driven forward by so many red herrings.
Like many detective mysteries it uses the device of starting out with two seemingly unconnected murders, and then they slowly come together.
He is a comic creation, of course, for example he convinces one official to help him by pretending he is throttling him and calling in two officers. It is all somehow done with a style and lightness of touch that softens the comedy and makes it kind of like the sun that shines through this compelling invented world. And you guess that you learn a little about Italy and the Italian temperament, the bureaucracy and the corruption are there, alongside the pleasantness of Italian life.
I started out thinking that it was just entertainment, and not literature, and I still think this more or less, though it is very well done. It does make you think about certain questions of morality, and the ending is surprisingly moving as he tries to avoid seeing his father on his deathbed.
I can see how you could fall a bit in love with Montalabno. You start out thinking he is a nightmare and rude but then he slowly wins you over with his brilliance in spotting various clues. There also something betwitching about how he sabotages his promotion - he is, in a way, a man happy in his own skin. Any time spent in his company is a great pleasure and I may well read some of the mysteries.