Novels' modern characters draw empathy

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 

Novels' modern characters draw empathyWhile 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.

Novels' modern characters draw empathyWhile 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, Montalbano takes the boy back. Later he learns that the boy has again tried to escape and has been run down and killed.

Montalbano’s guilt increases when he realises that the boy was going to be used as a slave, sold to a paedophile or killed for his organs. The plot of Rounding the Mark concerns Montalbano’s campaign to bring the people behind these outrages to justice. His success leaves him feeling that he can still work within the system, even if it seems at times to be corrupt beyond reform.

The G8 meeting at Gleneagles near Auchterarder brings problems to John Rebus. The Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister for International Development falls to his death from the castle parapets. He had accepted hospitality from an industrialist and was helping to entertain a Kenyan diplomat. Rebus’ colleague Siobhan Clarke becomes personally involved in the conflict around G8. Her parents are among the many demonstrators on an anti-globalisation / end poverty campaign and her mother is assaulted by a policeman.

Siobhan discovers that a young woman who is supposedly taking footage of events for the campaign organisers is in fact a police officer working undercover. Rebus discovers that the woman is the sister of the dead politician. British security services have control over all matters relating to G8 and Rebus is not encouraged to pursue his belief that the politician was murdered. Few writers could propel his protagonists along the fine line managed by Rankin.

Corris’ title, Undertow, links this novel tenuously with Camilleri’s. Corris often creates a story around historical events. Aftershock was based on possibilities suggested by the Newcastle earthquakes, and Wet Graves had its origins in the building of the Harbour Bridge.

His fiction contains many pop culture references. Corris employs great skill in choosing the physical settings for Hardy’s adventures, especially those around inner Sydney suburbs such as Glebe, where Hardy lives, and Newtown where he has an office. In this case he advises in a cautionary preface that all 'characters and circumstances are fictitious', but that is probably a wishful prescription rather than an accurate description.

Like Montalbano and Rebus, Hardy has problems with an insular police culture. Unlike them however, he is an outsider and can walk away from confrontations with conscience uncompromised. One ex-policeman Hardy has trusted through many adventures is Frank Parker. Parker asks Hardy to investigate the possibility that he has a son by a woman whose husband, convicted of conspiring to murder a partner in his medical practice, died in prison.

The son, William, has disappeared. Ashamed of his father’s crime, he developed behavioural problems and shunned a promising career as a UN linguist. The mother believes that her husband was not guilty and hopes that if this can be proven, William might return to her and behave more acceptably. So Hardy has three tasks – finding William, establishing his paternity and reviewing the conspiracy case.

Corris always says that he writes a pastiche of crime stories from the middle of the twentieth century and denies any literary pretensions. The success and longevity of the Hardy series suggests however, that he is doing what he does pretty well. It is true that most of his plots are resolved not just in, but by violence. On the other hand, Corris, unlike Camilleri and Rankin writes in first person and Hardy’s musings over issues are always thought provoking. A constant theme is the disproportionate unhappiness among the wealthy and the powerful. In this case, Hardy ponders the strength of the bonds between parents and children.

Novels' modern characters draw empathyA great satisfaction when reading is finding that a writer’s most recent work is his best, and Corris continues to satisfy. Reading Camilleri in translation is an interesting experience too. Rounding the Mark differs in tone from the earlier Montalbano novels, and it seems likely that Camilleri has modified the character so that he resembles more closely the television Montalbano played so superbly by Luca Zingaretti.

Sartarelli supplies endnotes to explain some local references for international readers. So, for example, we learn that rotating the forefinger of the left hand means 'Later'. The great omission in these notes is an explanation of how Catarella’s mispronunciations translate from Italian to English. Catarella is on the front desk of the police station and often fails to hear callers correctly, and uses strange expressions. So he inquires whether Montalbano is over his ‘illment’ and thinks that Fonso Spalato is 'Pontius Pilate'.

Of the three established crime writers, Rankin’s writing is the most sophisticated. His prose gives the sense of being very carefully crafted. The Celtic bard’s voice comes through strongly, and Rankin’s characters use some interesting slang such as 'high heid yins', but there is no need for a translator. In this latest case, the ending is realistic in its lack of tidiness, but is nonetheless satisfying.

Crime buffs and lovers of good writing generally will be pleased if Camilleri, Corris and Rankin continue to ply their craft as well as they do in these latest mysteries – for a good while yet.



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