Translated from Maltese by Albert Gatt

  • Knock, knock.
  • Who’s there?
  • A woman searching for answers.
  • Go away! There’s nothing for you here.

I paraphrase, but that scene repeats as a leitmotif throughout this meta-detective novel. The woman knocking on the various doors is Amanda. Following the death of her father, she decides she wants to know why her mother, Emma, abandoned her 25 years before. Her mother is not responsive, but Amanda is tenacious. Eventually she wears her mother down. The answer she receives is not what she expected. Emma confesses to killing two men.

One of the two was the fictional detective, Castillo, the creation of her twin sister, Cathy, nom de plume K Penza. Following Cathy’s death in a car bombing, Emma completed her final novel, and killed the detective off. Her second victim was the man she suspected of involvement in her sister’s killing.

All of which just gives Amanda, curiosity primed, more questions to answer, more doors to knock on, and more reluctant witnesses to question: Gina, the widow of the man her mother killed; Anne, her aunt Cathy’s friend and lover.

Hang on a minute. Why was Emma forced to take the law into her own hands? And why was she then never prosecuted? The answer to that lies in the Maltese reality of the 1980s, of which I knew nothing until reading Joe Gatt’s historical afterword. I strongly advise reading this before turning to the novel if you are as uninformed as I was. This will attune you to the clues in the excerpts of Cathy/K Penza’s Castillo novels, which alternate with Amanda’s private investigation. They provide an oblique commentary on what’s really went on during her childhood. And if the incomplete Castillo investigations are frustrating in that we never see them through to their conclusions, this is an accurate reflection of the multitude of actual unresolved cases in Malta at that time. The many intertextual references to both classics and classical rules of detective fiction are fun to spot. Most explicit reference is made to Ronald Knox’s 10 rules of detective fiction, a rulebook which Azzopardi gleefully tears to shreds.

  • Knock, knock.
  • Who’s there?
  • A reader who wishes to know if all questions raised are answered.
  • (Silence)

And that, as Paul Auster might say, is precisely the point.

The Lives and Deaths of K. Penza is published by Praspar Press, a plucky micropublisher which began operating at the height of the pandemic to support contemporary Maltese literature written in English and English translation.