Andrea Camilleri’s The Terra-Cotta Dog starts out like any other good detective novel. The Sicilian sleuth Salvo Montalbano staged the “arrest” of a notorious Mafiosi, who was said to have strangled his own brother to death, as a face-saving cover for his surrender. Things take a turn for the mysterious with the robbery of supermarket where the loot was suspiciously abandoned.
The mob, seemingly omniscient and one step ahead of the police all of the time, remains untouchable throughout the novel. Instead, Montalbano follows a rousing chain of events that eventually leads to his unearthing the remains of a crime unsolved for fifty years – hidden inside a mountain cave and guarded by a life-sized terra-cotta dog.
While we meet elements which are more or less usual in crime fiction – businessmen with underworld connections, rivalry between police departments, etc, Camilleri also gives a peculiar flavor to the story. Inspector Montalbano’s obsessive quest to solve this mystery also gives us not a few encounters with Italian history:
“Those were terrible times. The British and Americans were bombing us every day. In one thirty-six-hour period I counted ten bombing raids. Very few people were left in town, most had been evacuated, and we were living in the shelters that had been dug into the hill of marl above the city… The enemy aircraft had three targets: the power station, the port with its warships and merchant ships, and the antiaircraft and naval batteries along the ridge of the hill. When it was the Britis overhead, things went better than with the Americans.”
Montalbano was impatient. He wanted the man to get to the point-the dog, that is-but didn’t feel like interrupting his digressions.
“Went better in what sense, Mr. Burruano? It was still bombs they were dropping.”
Lost within some memory, Burruano had fallen silent, and so Headmaster Burgio spoke for him.
“The British, how shall I say, played more fairly. When they dropped their bombs they tried to hit only military targets, whereas the Americans dropped them helter-skelter, come what may.” (p. 160-161)
The book also offers a bunch of eccentric characters, the best example of which is this reclusive ex-monk who lives in a rundown house in the countryside with a room “literally crammed with books, not only on the shelves but stacked on the floor in piles that stretched nearly to the lofty ceiling and remained standing by means of some impossible equilibrium.” He suckles milk from a baby bottle, cites Umberto Eco’s Treatise on General Semiotics and is an expert on early Christian and medieval death rituals.
Now I don’t want to reveal more. One of the pleasures of reading this kind of book is precisely the act of following its strange twists and uncovering the mystery behind it. Of course, that doesn’t prevent me from sharing some tidbits about Camilleri’s hero. Inspector Montalbano is a totally lovable man who makes the novel a humorous read.
He loves pasta (and discusses them a lot). He has funny episodes with the women in his life. He doesn’t get along with his colleagues that well, treats them like shit, and prefers to take things on his own hands. He quivers and mumbles incomprehensibly when facing the press, and fears his pending promotion like the devil.
But what I will remember Montalbano as the inspector who “hated books that talked about the Mafia, murder, and Mafia victims” but talks of Sciascia and Pirandello, reads Faulkner, buys the book of a literary prize winner, and namedrop the alias of Curzio Malaparte in a scuffle.
Book Addicts, who was good enough to recommend this gem to me, tells us that Andrea Camilleri is considered as “one of Italy’s greatest 20th and 21st century writers.” The Terra-Cotta Dog made for a totally satisfying first book read for the new year. It is highly recommended. ■