Murder and sex in nighttime Malta
Murder. Sex. Car chases. Backroom politics. Intrigue. Forensics. Drama. What’s not to like in police thrillers? And then we wonder why they’re possibly the most sought-after genre in popular literature. Just as the various CSI dramas and derivatives are the most followed tv series around, readers the world over lap up police thrillers. Be it the more accessible Grisham or Dan Brown, be it the more sophisticated and upmarket Indridadson and his ilk, or the timeless PD James, we have all delved into this guilty pleasure at some point or other.
Which makes it all the more strange that Maltese literature lacks a proper thriller tradition. There were a few novels around the mid-twentieth century, however these have been out of print for decades now. The mystery genre – the nearest relative to the police thriller – has been mostly explored and delved into in children’s literature (Trevor Żahra’s cult classics of the seventies and eighties come to mind, as do Charles Casha’s much-loved adventures for children), and in recent years Pierre J. Mejlak’s Riħ Isfel brought the mystery/thriller story to teenage literature territory. There is also a strong tradition of non-fiction reporting of historical murders and crime, but almost nothing in the fiction field.
Fast-forward to 2010, and newcomer Mark Camilleri attracted everyone’s attention with his intelligently crafted Prima Facie (published by Merlin). Inspector Victor Gallo honours the best traditions of contemporary detectives: burly, loner, messed-up private life, unconventional in method, but effective and ultimately successful, if not necessarily appreciated – though grudgingly respected – by his colleagues and superiors. His Gallo will appeal to followers of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus, and likewise fans of Camilleri’s Sicilian namesake’s Ispettore Montalbano are bound to love Inspector Gallo.
In what promises to be the first of a series of Inspector Gallo novels, Prima Facie zooms in onto a serial killer on a rampage in Malta. Teenage girls are being abducted and murdered, and a sexual motive has not been ruled out. What follows is a race against time to find the killer before the victim count goes even higher. And the stakes for Gallo become intensely personal.
Prima Facie received extremely favourable reviews in the local press, and fans particularly liked the gritty realism of the Maltese setting: from the kebab shop as the lone beacon of life in a quiet night, to streets and public spaces that we all know so well – not to mention a tantalising subplot involving illicit sex and videotapes. As author Mark Camilleri emphasised, “all the novel’s settings are authentic, from Dingli to Sliema to Mosta, so readers can relate much more intimately with the vicious serial crimes that are haunting the country.”
Publication of Prima Facie was preceded by a book video – an unprecedented effort in the local publishing scene. While extremely popular abroad, book videos are expensive to produce professionally, so had not been attempted locally. Camilleri’s publishers, Merlin, contracted tv and film production company Take 2 (of Deceduti fame) to produce a book video that would introduce Gallo – and, indeed, Camilleri – to the local scene. And the book video (viewable on YouTube) was a viral success beyond the team’s expectations. Prima Facie sold half its print-run within a couple of months of publication, and fans seem to have enjoyed what they read, as the author regularly receives emails and Facebook messages asking about the sequel. Contacted, Camilleri confirmed that “obviously Prima Facie won’t be the last time local literature enthusiasts will hear of Victor Gallo, as at the moment I’m working on the second instalment, to be published early next year.”
Strictly speaking, Camilleri – and Gallo – both debuted in Merlin’s 45th anniversary celebration publication, titled 45, where 10 of Merlin’s key authors each created a short story featuring the number 45. Camilleri’s contribution to the anthology, a short story titled simply Gallo, introduced the dour Inspector to readers of contemporary Maltese fiction. 45 has just won Second Prize at the Malta Book Awards for 2009.