Etienne Van Heerden's The Long Silence of Mario Salviati follows the journey of Ingi Friedlander, the curator of the National Gallery at Cape Town, to the almost inaccessible village of Yearsonend. He is on a mission to purchase the magnificent sculpture of the Staggering Merman which has magically appeared on the front lawn the local eccentric artist, who goes by the name of Jonty Jack.
Ingi settles into life of the small town and slowly is allowed access into their inner circle, which makes her privy to the history, rumors, and innuendo that run rife in all small towns. Yearsonend’s hometown homilies include feuding families, practice of the black arts, the requisite tragic love stories, and the age-old bane: plain old greed. Ingi learns that part of the reason for the secrecy of the townspeople is that there is buried nearby a treasure trove of gold. As all outsiders who come to small towns do, Ingi begins investigating and becomes sucked into the lore of the past and the gleam of the future. While doing so, she becomes friends with Mario Salviati, the mute Italian immigrant who surprisingly knows the genesis of many of the town's mysteries.
Van Heerden does an excellent job of capturing the feel of a small town, particularly the feel of an outsider in a small town who decides to delve into private local matters. Ingi Friedlander is a well-drawn, believable character, and readers are cheering for her to solve the mystery from the beginning. Mario Salviati could easily have become a cliché, a mere prop with the entire expected tearjerking gags. Fortunately, Van Heerden resists this temptation and makes him into a sympathetic, not pathetic, character. The plot does drag in a few places but generally stays right on track and comes to a logical if not expected conclusion. Which is the best compliment one can give this type of story.
The journey in the story is not just Ingi’s search for an unusual statue, for Mario is on his own mission to free himself of his past. Together they help each other achieve their goals and unravel a town's mystery in the process.