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Camilleri, Andrea - 'The Terracotta Dog' (translated by Stephen Sartarelli)
Paperback: 352 pages (Jun. 2004) Publisher: Picador ISBN: 0330492918

Despite my best intentions, I have managed to read the first few books in this wonderful Sicilian police series in the wrong order. No matter (though the publishers could have helped by noting the order). In THE TERRACOTTA DOG, chronologically the second book, the hilariously linguistically challenged Catarella has been foisted on Salvo Montalbano's team of detectives by his nepotistic connections - although the baby-like, overenthusiastic man himself seems to be entirely innocent of this fact. There is also much rivalry between Salvo and his second in command Mimi Augello, and others in the team are little more than occasional players. In later books, these relationships and characters develop, providing even more depth and joy to a delightful reading paradise.

THE TERRACOTTA DOG begins with an old Mafioso, Tano the Greek (who is no more Greek than Salvo), unable to cope with the impersonal, modern criminal style, wants to retire - yet keep his face. He therefore concocts an elaborate ruse with Salvo, the kind of policeman with whom he knows he can do business, so that it appears as if he has been captured in a heroic gun battle. Things do not go entirely to plan, of course: subsequently Salvo and his men discover a hidden cache of weapons in a cave at an abandoned road construction site - and receive plenty of, in Salvo's view, not entirely properly earned glory in the process.

While all this is going on, Salvo is puzzled by the apparently nonsensical theft of goods from a local supermarket. This event leads him eventually to discover that the cave has a concealed inner chamber. In this secret place are two bodies, the titular terracotta dog, and a bowl of old coins. It is this historical mystery that occupies Salvo for the rest of the book. He becomes obsessed with finding out not only who the bodies are, but how they came to be there, and ignores his other cases even though Mimi's handling of the supermarket affair turns out to be lethal for quite a few civilians.

Although the historical mystery is diverting and the story of the young couple moving, the reason for the strange arrangement in the cave, when Salvo finally understands it, is slightly weak. But getting there is a wonderful journey, not least when Salvo meets the eccentric old academic priest Alcide Maraventano, who engages him in a discourse on reading.

Both Livia (Salvo's long-suffering, mainly absentee girlfriend) and Ingrid (a local woman who became friends with Salvo in THE SHAPE OF WATER) make welcome appearances in this book, and I'm glad to say that even a bullet in the colon does not stop Salvo's enjoyment of the most mouth-wateringly described meals it is possible to describe.

The subtle translation, by Stephen Sartarelli, does the book proud. Does the pun on the word "tenor" really work in Italian? This is just one of the many nuances that make Camilleri's perfect mix of plot, character, unsentimentality, humour and strong sense of local tradition, such a delight for the reader.

Maxine Clarke, England
October 2007

Maxine blogs at Petrona.

Details of the author's other books with links to reviews can be found on the Books page.
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 12/02/2012 11:17