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Novels' modern characters draw empathy

  • 27 February 2007

Rounding the Mark, by Andrea Camilleri. Picador, London, 2006, ISBN 0-3304-4725-4 $32.95 264pp Paperback website The Undertow, by Peter Corris. Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, 2006, ISBN 1-7411-4748-4, $19.95, 209pp Paperback  website The Naming of the Dead, by Ian Rankin. Orion, London, 2006 ISBN 0-7528-6859-4, $32.95, 420pp, Paperback website 

While crime writers are seldom considered for major literary awards, there is no doubt that the best in the genre demonstrate exceptional control of their material. Three novels published in late 2006 are admirable for the structure of their respective plots, characterisation and style. World literature is much richer for the input of Italian Andrea Camilleri (translated by Stephen Sarterelli), Australian Peter Corris and Scot Ian Rankin. Indeed, their contributions are so diverse that confining them to a genre seems arbitrary. Although some writers have tried to add interest to their stories by exploring historical or exotic settings, Camilleri, Corris and Rankin have mastered the art of presenting modern characters in contemporary situations. These three writers have perfected the art to such an extent that the reader feels immediate empathy with their protagonists.

Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano of the Sicilian police is a slightly more humorous study than Rankin’s DI John Rebus of Edinburgh CID or Corris’ Sydney PI, Cliff Hardy. Unwilling to take direction from above, Montalbano is a fierce defender of his staff, who reciprocate with unqualified loyalty. Slightly less understandable is the tolerance shown Montalbano by his long-time, long-distance fiancée, Livia. Montalbano’s reluctance to commit himself to Livia symbolises his love for Sicily, disparaged by northerners as a lawless place. While all three characters have inspired television pieces, only Montalbano has become a small screen icon. anA loosely-based rendering of Rounding the Mark appeared recently on SBS as Turning Point. Montalbano must exorcise two personal demons, and Camilleri uses contemporary events and issues to create both. The novel opens as Montalbano threatens to resign because he feels betrayed by police conduct in Genoa. Faced with demonstrations against the G8 meeting, police exceeded their authority, fabricated evidence against protestors and denied any wrongdoing. Montalbano is respected locally, even by the Mafia, because he has never used violence, fabricated evidence or broken his word, even to criminals. While wrestling with this problem of professional ethics, Montalbano encounters a young boy who has arrived on the well-worn asylum seeker trail from North Africa. When the boy tries to escape from the woman and two other children who seem to be his family,