Friday, June 3, 2011

The Terra-Cotta Dog, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin Books
originally published as Il Cane di terracotta, 1996
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
340 pp

The Terra-Cotta Dog is the second installment of Andrea Camilleri's most excellent series of Italian crime fiction novels featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano. Currently, this series consists of thirteen books, beginning with The Shape of Water, set in Sicily.  These books fall on what I'd call the "lighter side" of crime fiction: the author's plots and the crimes are intriguing enough for even the most seasoned crime fiction reader, but at the same time, there is a constant thread of humor that runs throughout the series, mostly due to the author's most excellent characterizations.

The Terra-Cotta Dog begins with a phone call to Inspector Montalbano from one of his old friends. Now a well-known pimp, he has contacted Salvo to arrange a meeting between the inspector and a well-known local Mafioso known as Tano the Greek. As it turns out, Tano wants to arrange his own "capture," because, as he notes, it's time for him to step aside before the new generation of criminals leaves him "dead in a ditch."  Montalbano decides to go along with the ploy.  Their deal ultimately lands Montalbano smack in the middle of a series of odd crimes -- a bizarre supermarket robbery where the goods were found nearby at a gas station the very next day, a car accident that ends up in the death an aging die-hard fascist on his way to give Montalbano information, an unknown person dead in the trunk of a car, and  a weapons cache found in a cave.  And as if that's not enough, the inspector uncovers a strange tableau in a part of the cave which has long been sealed up: the intertwined bodies of a man & a woman, seemingly guarded by an old terra-cotta dog.  Also in the cave are a water jug and a bowl of coins.  The bodies are discovered to have been dead for about fifty years, and Montalbano is more than eager to figure out who they are, why they were sealed into the cave, and whether or not there is any significance to the artifacts left with the bodies.

The characters are what make this book -- especially Montalbano.  At one point he described himself as a "solitary hunter" who likes to "go hunting with others" but wants to be "the only one organizing the hunt." He loves good food and appreciates great cooking, and is looked after by a housekeeper who leaves him food every day except when his girlfriend Livia is there visiting from Genoa. In fact, it's probably not too far off the mark to say that Montalbano tackles his criminal cases like he tackles his food: each and every detail is experienced individually, until the payoff comes in the bigger picture.  In the course of a day, Montalbano also has to deal with a wide variety of personalities. He often drives his colleagues and subordinates crazy with his temperament, but the reverse is true as well.  In the office, for example, there's Catarella, who speaks in a weird mishmash called " 'talian," and gets things mixed up when he does his job of answering the station's telephone calls. Then there's second-in-command Mimi Augello, who pouts and wonders why Montalbano doesn't include him more often in his investigations. He also has to work with the eccentric Judge LoBianco, who has been working for years on a book called The Life and Deeds of Rinaldo and Antonio Lo Bianco, Masters of Law at the University of Girgenti at the time of King Martin the Younger (1402-1409), solely because the judge has decided that Rinaldo and Antonio were his ancestors. Montalbano is also well read, with a reading range from crime fiction to Shakespeare.  But above all, Montalbano is a detective who gets results, never letting up on a case until it's over.

The Terra-Cotta Dog is a very quick read despite its 300+ pages. The story appeals to my sense of humor, my need for captivating crimes, and my absolute delight when the pieces of the puzzle all come together in a coherent manner.  There is also a fully-developed sense of place in this novel -- the reader gets to know Sicily well in terms of landscape,  food, and local customs.  The translation is very well executed, so that you don't stop to wonder what you're missing if you haven't read the book in its original Italian version.  Finally, the book is intelligent, something I appreciate in good crime fiction novels.  The only negative thing I have to say about this one is that the solution to the bodies in the cave mystery was maybe a bit on the hokey side, but after reading the author's note, I see why Camilleri framed it this way. I can definitely recommend this book, especially to crime fiction readers who like lighter fare, and who prefer their crime reads less on the edgy, hardcore, or gritty side.

(read in May)

crime fiction from Italy


  1. Oh, I liked this one very much, too :-). You've spotlighted some of the elements of it (the humour, the grittiness-without-gratuitous violence, etc.) that worked for me, and I recommend the book as well. Thanks for reminding me of it.

  2. You're so welcome! I am planning to get through the entire series before the end of the summer, so I know I have a lot to look forward to.


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