On September 29, I used the title of the book as the title of the blog post. The post wasn’t about the book. It was an introduction to the author and to Salvo Montalbano, Camilleri’s everyman hero. Salvo is a conscientious cop, honest, dedicated, and, frequently, an emotional mess as he examines the things that worm their way into the lives of the blissfully ignorant.
The thirteenth book in the series, THE POTTER’S FIELD is, in some ways, the best book in the series. Camilleri has always allowed the Sicilian Mafia to be a character in the books. The local godfather is lurking in the background, manipulating the government of Italy the police of the town of Vigata, Sicily, and everything in between. Camilleri adds an even more powerful influence in the lives of the Italians, the teachings of Christ in the New Testament. Nominal Catholics many Italians may be, but they were taught the lessons on which the church is built and the message is ingrained, as much a part of the psyche as the soul.
In THE POTTER’S FIELD, Salvo Montalbano is called to the scene of a body dump in a potter’s field. The dirt that normally covers the field has been washed away in the severe rainstorm, revealing a dismembered body in a garbage bag. The body has been in this state for a couple of months. The killer has worked very hard to ensure that there is no way the body can be identified. It is impossible to determine the height, the build, the face of the victim but when Dolores Alfano comes to the police station to report her husband missing, Montalbano is sure his is the body in the bag. Giovanni Alfano works on a ship that sails on voyages that keep its crew away from home for months at a time. Dolores hasn’t heard from her husband and she finds something suspicious in the contacts she has made with the captain of the ship. Providing some DNA from their home, Dolores learns that the body is that of her husband. But she saw him boarding the ship. How could he have died in Sicily?
As with all the Camilleri books, the beginning is given over to establishing the crime and introducing the characters. Montalbano has his usual sidekicks, Augello and Fazio, his long-time girlfriend Livia, and, of course, Catarella. Once the author has the framework in place, the story takes off and it is apparent that there is not one wasted word leading up to the action (although “action” is a term used loosely). All murder and mayhem take place off the page; Camilleri writes character driven novels, moved forward by Montalbano’s musings.
In the New Testament, Judas is paid thirty pieces of silver for betraying Christ, making sure the Romans who come to arrest Him get the right man. When Judas has a crisis of conscience, he returns to the Sanhedrin and throws the coins on the floor. He leaves and ends his life in the belief that he can never be forgiven for what he has done. The members of the Sanhedrin take the thirty pieces of silver and use them to buy a potter’s field, a place where the clay in the earth makes it useless for agriculture. The theme of this book is betrayal of friendship, spouse, and principles and it all begins with the discovery of the body in the potter’s field.
Camilleri cannot write a book that does not contain wonderful passages filled with humor. Montalbano has a dispute with his boss, the commissioner. “Ah, I feel so insulted and humiliated! You’re accusing me of an act – no, indeed, a crime that if true, would warrant severe punishment! As if I were a common idiot or gambler!”…End of climax. The inspector inwardly congratulated himself. He had managed to utter a statement using only titles of novels by Dostoyevsky.”
The story is filled with symbols, the religious symbols from the New Testament and symbols used by the local Mafia to remind the natives that there is little that the local Boss of Bosses does not still influence. The Mafia with its financial resources could be a force for some good but betrays that possibility by always resorting to violence.
Camilleri also references Camilleri when Montalbano picks up a book in which Andrea Camilleri retells the story of the Passion of Christ in a book published in 2000. The story cannot be told without reference to Judas, the thirty pieces of silver, and the potter’s field, which is to be set aside as a burial place for strangers. Camilleri also makes reference to Montalbano’s recognition that he is slowing down, that retirement might not be too far in the future. Montalbano is being betrayed by his age as his body slows down. Yet, there is no sense of finality in the book. Montalbano is not quite ready to make any decisions so, I hope, we can look forward to a few more days with Salvo Montalbano.