Crime without Punishment
News, Books By: Isabelle Vella Gregory

It has never been done before but it was about time we had a Maltese detective series. Has Mark Camilleri risen to the challenge of being our first crime fiction writer?

I have often wondered why Maltese literature is not particularly known for crime drama. As a nation, we are not strangers to crime. Petty crime is fairly common but violent crime is (mercifully) a rare phenomenon. Indeed, news of a murder will set the islands abuzz in a very short space of time, accompanied by the usual musings on the alleged deterioration of society. According to Interpol, between 1999 and 2000 the rate of murder decreased from 3 to 1.95 per 100,000 people. Elsewhere, both statistics would be seen as cause for celebration, rather than worry. And yet, as a nation we do love our crime drama series, especially on Italian television, and recent years have seen an increase in hugely popular, locally produced police-based TV series. Without exception, these have an avid following, including Facebook pages and numerous YouTube videos.

The lacuna remained in literature, until Mark Camilleri’s debut novel Prima Facie. I imagine it is quite scary to attempt to fill the gap but Camilleri ably and confidently rises to the challenge. Camilleri first introduced his hero (or rather anti-hero), Inspector Gallo, in “Gallo” published in 45. This short story held a lot of promise and I confess, I was impatiently waiting for the book. The publishers, Merlin Library, have established a successful tradition of building up momentum before publication and this time they really pulled out all the stops. Like many other fans, I was glued to Facebook waiting for updates. Publisher Chris Gruppetta decided to up the ante with a book video, the first of its kind in Malta. This was a masterstroke and airing the video during the country’s most popular crime TV series will surely encourage non-readers to pick up the book.

After all this hype one of course wonders if the book will live up to expectations and it most definitely does. Pretty much, I’ve had my nose firmly in the book since I received it (no thanks to the postal service for delaying my parcel, incidentally). If anything, Camilleri has proved once and for all that the crime genre firmly belongs in Maltese literature. He is to be congratulated not just for breaking into the genre, but for doing so with his first novel. Camilleri has opted for a more traditional type of policeman who relies on his instinct and good old fashioned detection, leaving cutting edge methods to his younger underlings and the forensics team. In general, this works well and I am sure that in the next installment the author will iron out things like tighter language and moving away from an overenthusiastic use of pop culture references which, sadly, is really quite tedious. A tighter control of writing will benefit his next books immensely. In the meantime, these creases do not detract from the plot and it is refreshing to read a crime novel that remains plot driven, without the padding that characterizes some of the most popular books in the genre. Interestingly, the author remains true to the plot while telling us the story of Inspector Gallo, who is already on the way to becoming a much loved character. The technique of centering a plot around the personality of its main character is not new in crime fiction, yet not every author manages it with a degree of success. Camilleri keeps a perfect balance between his irascible and curmudgeonly anti-hero and the plot and I am sure ensuing books will build on this technique.

It takes a courageous person to wade into a genre that is pretty much new in the Maltese literary scene. On his Facebook page Mark notes that he is the next act waiting in the wings. It’s time to take centre stage and enjoy your applause (and then please get back to Gallo, your loyal readers are waiting).

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