Tuesday, 16th March 2010
Murder, he wrote
Detective fiction is a genre which Mark Camilleri enjoys reading and writing. Moreover, it is a genre which Maltese literature has ignored for too long.
For the first time in decades, a Maltese author gets away with murder. Stanley Borg meets Mark Camilleri for some crime and nourishment.
A good detective novel is like an ample-course dinner after seven lean years of dieting: the pan-fried foie gras, the lamb in all its juices, the crusted scallops, and the gum-tickling crème anglaise will do you a world of good. But with a stomach fit to burst, you’ll spend the next hours counting sheep in a desperate attempt to sleep.
While in recent years, the vernacular has learned to talk in different genres, detective fiction has remained as out of bounds as a crime scene. It’s not that we lack inspiration – the frequency with which detective dramas hit our television screens attests to that. Rather, what is missing is the skill in using words to plot, create tension, and lead into murderous temptation. And that can probably be explained by the fact that, as a literary genre, the structure of detective fiction is more complex that a first reading might make it seem.
Which neatly brings me to Prima Facie (Merlin Library), newcomer Mark Camilleri’s first detective novel, being published next week.
Now here I must confess to a streak of nepotism. Well, actually it isn’t because, since the pimply days when Mr Camilleri and I shared the same classroom, more than a decade has passed. And even though Mr Camilleri’s weapon of choice has remained a well-sharpened pencil, he now uses it to write rather than to jab unsuspecting classmates.
“I started writing like most teens do,” says Mr Camilleri. “I loaded my amateur poetry with anger and jilted love. But when the acne was gone, I persevered, and writing became my alienation from the daily grind.”
But why write detective fiction?
“It is a genre which I enjoy reading and writing,” says Mr Camilleri. “Moreover, it is a genre which Maltese literature has ignored for too long. I saw an empty space, and I went for it. I know that makes it sound very straightforward, but it wasn’t.”
Detective fiction makes for a comfortable read, one which gives the reader enough space to fill in the blanks. As a closed text, the reader’s expectations – the murder, the investigation, the false leads, the final twist – are all met. Yet for an author, such a formulaic genre may limit elbow room.
Detective fiction might be the ultimate closed text, but as Peter Brooks suggests, it is also “the narrative of narratives”. Mr Brooks’s theory feeds on Tzvetan Todorov’s seminal essay, The Typology of Detective Fiction. In his essay, Mr Todorov upholds the distinction between “genre fiction” and “literature”. In doing so, however, Mr Todorov uncovers the complex double narrative of detective fiction: the first narrative, the crime, is gradually reassembled in the second narrative, which is the investigation.
In Prima Facie, however, the present investigation does not follow and uncover a crime committed in the past – rather, the two run along parallel timelines.
“The use of the present tense jabs the story with tension and immediacy,” says Mr Camilleri. “As an author, I wanted to be in the same position as the reader and discover things as I went along.”
Still, as the author, Mr Camilleri has the privilege of knowing the ending to Prima Facie.
“That is a dangerous privilege,” Mr Camilleri adds. “To create suspense, an author has to find the perfect balance between saying enough to fuel the reader’s curiosity, but at the same time not giving away too much.
Otherwise, the reader would solve the crime before the actual ending.”
The topography of Prima Facie also adds to the immediacy, as do the minutiae of police work.
“Trevor Zahra once gave me a very good piece of advice – if you are going to write about something, make sure that you get the facts right. Writing is not just about inspiration – it is also about research.”
“As for the topography of Prima Facie, I wanted the novel to take place in real locations, places which the reader can relate to,” says Mr Camilleri. “I chose Villa Psaigon in Dingli as the location for the first murder because in a small village, something as brutal as a murder has a louder reverberation. The shock is bigger. There are also personal undercurrents in the landmarks I chose. For instance, when I was young, I used to go to Villa Psaigon with the boy scouts. I have very fond and innocent memories of the place – to turn such a happy place into a murder scene was a macabre trick I played on my own memories.”
In Prima Facie, Mr Camilleri gives life to memorable characters. Inspector Victor Gallo informs the whole novel. In the classic whodunit, the detective is immune to harm. Yet despite the cool factor – he drives a Ford Consul GT and listens to vintage rock music – which gives him an untouchable aura, Gallo is a vulnerable anti-hero.
There is a key moment, in Chapter 27, when Gallo is looking at his lover and notices “just a hint of cellulite” on her body. This imperfection reflects Gallo’s own broken life: following a broken marriage, he spends his nights battling with insomnia and getting drunk on his own.
Yet Gallo also has the charm of the old-time detective. It is like pitting Inspector Morse against the white-coated buffs in CSI. True, the buffs might wow you with their special effects, but the traditional detective has a beautiful mind which connects with the victims and which is led by instinct rather than technology.
The secondary characters in Prima Facie also have multiple layers of interest.
“Some characters choose you, rather than you as an author choose them,” says Mr Camilleri. “You walk down Republic Street, see someone who has an uncanny quality that grabs you – it might be a movement, something they are wearing – and you start building a character around them.”
Mr Camilleri is attracted to the macabre.
“Crime reports always fascinated me,” says Mr Camilleri. “Even when I was young, I would line up newspaper reports of the same crime and see the various angles that different journalists take on the same event. In Prima Facie, I created a serial killer because I find them especially compelling. Why do they commit crimes? Is it because they want to be remarkable? Is it their form of escape from normality?”
It is this fascination which leads Mr Camilleri to give form to something brutal; something which is, by nature, not aesthetic.
“As the author, I am also a murderer,” says Mr Camilleri. “I may not be the one who committed the killings in Prime Facie. Yet I created them.”