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The joys of justice, crooks and cooking in Sicily with the fractious Inspector Salvo Montalbano. Erudite & witty!
on 2 July 2017
The Terracotta Dog is the second outing for the fractious Inspector Salvo Montalbano and his team based in Vigàta, Sicily and despite this being only my third read from the series I already feel that I am reaping the benefits of a growing familiarity with the characters and the ‘flexible’ justice system that Camilleri recounts. I certainly feel that already my understanding of Montalbano’s criminal network of contacts, his colleagues, his culinary persuasions and indeed his tempestuous relationship with fiery girlfriend, Livia, is all the more humorous with repeated outings. In all three of my experiences to date it is hard to sum up the plot in a straightforward manner as Camilleri throws in numerous diversions and follows an circuitous route to an eventual solution, but as I have now discovered the opening exchanges often give no indication of all that is to come and that is, in itself, a curious part of the enjoyment.
The Terracotta Dog begins with an ageing mafioso, Tano the (not so very) Greek, orchestrating an elaborate charade with Inspector Salvo Montslbano in an acceptance that his day has passed and the rapidly progressing crime racket is too much for an old man. But at the same time as Montalbano is involved in overseeing this operation of amateur dramatics, complete with a weapon he really isn’t keen on being in charge of, a major theft at a local supermarket is underway. As a prison transfer sees Tano the Greek gunned down and drawing his last breath, his last gasp tip off revealing the location of a cave within an abandoned construction site reveals a hidden cache of firearms, but just how this relates to the supermarket theft remains to be seen. When an abandoned truck involved in the theft is discovered with its contents untouched it forces Montalbano to go the extra mile and dig deep, set the local gossip grapevine in motion and thereby uncover a few more skeletons in his home town. For Montalbano, his continual need to know and inherent curiosity about his surroundings and Sicilian home mean that he mixes in a world where he is privy to some disclosures that wouldn’t otherwise begin to feature in a more routine police investigation. In The Terracotta Dog it is the discovery of a second hidden chamber deep inside the original cave with two embracing corpses, both dead for over fifty-years, that is the real substance of this wry police procedural, and the supermarket theft that is a mere diversion along the way. Montalbano’s fascination with the identity of the corpses and what appears as a particular burial rite surrounding their bodies that includes a life-sized terracotta dog, a bowl and a jug that so mystifies him. Opting to focus on this matter rather than the significantly less fascinating supermarket robbery, his second-in-command Mimi Augello doesn’t cover himself in glory with his handling of what should be a routine operation. Meanwhile Montalbano devotes himself to an energetic quest that may not show up in his annual crime statistics as another case solved, but means markedly more to the elder statesmen of the region. One of the delights of reading Camilleri is the absolutely outlandish solutions that he delivers and it is a pleasure to witness his creative solutions slowly building to fruition.
Whilst the central attraction in the novels is the eponymous Inspector Salvo Montalbano with his pragmatic approach to crime fighting and delivering justice that proves so compelling, the secondary characters are just as intrinsic to my enjoyment. Quick-witted, honest to a fault, and remarkably loyal, Montalbano is as involved with the underworld criminals as he is to adhering to procedure. Always keen to take command of an operation and instruct his subordinates, he is less keen on cooperating with second-in-command Mimi Augello, where a noticeable rivalry exists. The inept Agatino Catarella (Cat) operates the station telephone and bungles every message that is left for Montalbano, offering his own frankly curious interpretation of the Italian language. Each continuing character brings a unique element of humour to the story, from housekeeper Adelina’s culinary prowess, to colleague Galluzzo’s newsman brother-in-law and Montalbano’s red haired friend and journalist with very red ideas, the radical Nicolò Zito and his timely broadcasting.
Whilst I could not read a continual diet of Camilleri and his energetic brand of high comedy, every once in a while an interlude in the company of Montalbano really does the trick. This second outing is exceptionally well-plotted and keeps the readers brain working overtime to stay with the sometimes less than transparent workings in Sicily. Camilleri’s understanding of the Italian culture and the remarkably blurred boundaries between the good and bad guys allows him to draw every bit of humour out of the culture and workings of the system. I do feel that any review of an Inspector Montalbano novel distils a large part of the charm and as such, readers are best to dip a toe in the water to understand just was an absolute riot these gems are! I defy any review to even compare to the brilliance of actually witnessing Camilleri’s tales playing out. Thankfully the fluid translation courtesy of Stephen Sartarelli makes these delights so easily accessible to an English speaking audience.
Review written by Rachel Hall (@hallrachel)