August Heat – Andrea Camilleri (2006)
Although written 50 years apart, Simenon and Camilleri deal with themes concerning weather, aging, and flawed heroism of their series characters Maigret and Montalbano.
In Maigret Afraid, our favorite Inspector Jules Maigret finds himself in Fontenay-le-Comte, in Vendée (west-central France). The climate there is usually mild, but given the importance of the weather for Simenon in creating mood, the miserable rain adds to the fear of the people of the town where a serial killer is pounding harmless people to death with a pipe. In August Heat, our second favorite Inspector Salvo Montalbano has to summer in Vigàta, Sicily, when his subordinate Mimi is allowed to extend his summer vacation. In August, Sicily is sweltering, with a palpable heat that soaks clothes in minutes, exhausts the spirit and mind, and shortens the already infamously short Sicilian temper. Salvo is driven to lock his office door and in his underwear figure out the case of a body found in a truck in an illegally constructed apartment.
Both books address the themes of the effect of aging on confidence. On his way back from a conference of police officials, Maigret thinks about his bored lack of interest at hearing about the latest forensic techniques. Confronted with the uneasiness of this less than professional reaction, he worries, “Was he perhaps suddenly feeling old?” Similarly, in the tenth novel of the series, fifty-something Montalbano’s concern about heart attacks and his brooding about his own mortality will connect with a middle-aged audience. Plus, with long-time GF Livia not speaking to him (for lousy reasons, this time), he frets about a weakening will unable to resist temptation to do the wrong thing with the stunning twin sister of the murder victim, who is young enough to be his daughter. The undermining of Montalbano’s confidence due to his worries about growing old leads to unfortunate outcomes in this one.
The protagonists of the two novels are both honest and moral. Both Maigret and Montalbano have reached middle-age, old enough to know their own frailties and thus be patient with people whose weaknesses have gotten them into deep trouble. Maigret feels sympathy toward crooks who have been unable to withstand internal and external pressures that drive them to crime. Montalbano feels melancholy compassion toward a wide range of people who have been damaged by criminals, from the grieving survivors of murder victims to immigrant workers exploited to death, literally, in Berlusconi’s corrupt Italy. Both inspectors must deal with the difficulties ethical officials face when confronted with the machinations of politicians and crooks in cahoots. Both Simenon and Camilleri take as a given that men in power will do terrible things with impunity because they assume other people exist to be used, though Simenon is resigned to it and Camilleri is scathing about it.
Fans of mysteries set in Europe – especially middle-aged ones – will enjoy these stories. Younger readers might find it tedious to ruminate on aging, but, well, it’s better to deal with getting old than obsess about the alternative.