I really like Inspector Salvo Montalbano. I mean I've almost got a literary crush on him I like him so much. He's intelligent and funny and a little quirky (sometimes a lot quirky), and how can you not like a character named Montalbano who reads mysteries by real life author Manuel Montalbán? He even reads William Faulkner, too. He's smart without exactly being intellectual. And he has a discerning palate judging by the meals he consumes. He's not without flaws, however. He can be cranky and opinionated, needs to be in control but he's a decent guy. I like him. The Terra-Cotta Dog is Andrea Camilleri's second Inspector Montalbano mystery (I wrote about the first, The Shape of Water, here), which is set in Vigàta, Sicily, a place ripe with corruption and violence.
Camilleri is a prolific writer, and I think he's published almost twenty Montalbano mysteries in Italy, though there are (so far) only fourteen translated into English. The Terra-Cotta Dog was a wholly satisfying read. I thought the first book in the series was good, and I think this second one was even better. I'm already looking forward to the third (and I won't be waiting until next summer to pick it up either, which seems to have been a trend so far with my mystery reading). I have a lot of catching up to do since I want to read all the books, but maybe that's a good thing as I have so many to look forward to.
The Terra-Cotta Dog is a mystery inside a mystery, which is the sort I like best. You're reading happily along thinking the murder or crime at hand has been solved and then realize you haven't even actually gotten to the real story. I have a feeling that in Sicily that if there's been a violent act, then the Mafia is surely close by. At least a certain kind of violence. In Montalbano's newest case, a hard-core Mafioso hands himself to Montalbano on a platter.
Tano the Greek, with a reputation as an "evil beast", has requested (via Montalbano's pimp friend, Gegè) that Montalbano come see him. Alone. As it turns out Tano wants to "retire" from the business and has decided to "let himself be arrested". The world is changing and so is the way business is being conducted in Sicily and he's ready to get out. But to save face he asks for a certain amount of theatrics. Although he is essentially giving himself up, he doesn't want to let it appear that way. Montalbano, a well-respected man and detective, is the only one Tano will deal with.
Part of the attraction of these stories for me is the way in which they are told, which is with a thread of humor running through them. Montalbano is a fairly self-deprecating guy with a quick wit and totally no-nonsense. To give you a flavor of both Montalbano's personality and Camilleri's writing style, you have to read this passage. This is the sort of situation that comes along in Camilleri's stories that makes them such a delight (as crime novels go) to read. Montalbano has called two of his detectives to help him in the arrest of Tano and here they are circling the house ready to surprise Tano (the two men not being privy to the set up).
"Montalbano's first leap forward was one for the books, or at the very least a training manual: a decisive, balanced ascent from the ground, worthy of a high-jump specialist, a weightless, aerial suspension, and a clean, dignified landing that would have amazed a ballerina. Galluzzo and Germanà. who were watching him from different perspectives, took equal delight in their chief's bodily grace. The start of the second leap was even better calibrated than the first, but something happened midair that caused Montalbano, from his upright posture, to tilt suddenly sideways like the tower of Pisa, then plunge earthward in what looked truly like a clown's routine. After tottering with arms outstretched in search of a nonexistent handle to grab onto, he crashed heavily to one side. Instinctively, Galluzzo made a move as if to help him, but stopped himself in time, plastering himself back against the wall. Germanà also stood up in a moment, but quickly got back down."
"A good thing this was all a sham, the inspector thought. Otherwise Tano could have cut them down like ninepins then and there. Muttering some of the pithiest curses in his vast repertoire, Montalbano began to crawl around in search of the pistol that had slipped from his hand during the fall. At last he spotted it under a touch-me-not bush, but as soon as he stuck his arm in there to retrieve it, all the little cucumbers burst and sprayed his face with seeds. With a certain melancholy rage the inspector realized he's been demoted from gangster-film hero to a character in an Abbott and Costello movie. No longer in the mood to play the athlete or dancer, he covered the last few yards between him and the house with a few quick steps, merely hunching forward a little."
Just prior to Tano's take-down, as it were, a call concerning the robbery of a local supermarket comes in but is somewhat dismissed as being not (comparatively) very important. A van with the missing stock shows up abandoned, which seems to solve the crime easily enough until a few murders are thrown in for good measure. All of a sudden what appears to have been a straightforward petty crime becomes darker and more complicated.
Then a deathbed confession leads Montalbano to a cache of arms in a cave. It's what's hidden deep in the cave and discovered after the solution to the robbery that makes up the really interesting part of this mystery. I've noticed that with Italian crime writers (as with European authors, at least those whose work often gets translated into English) that this secondary crime reaches back in time all the way to the Second World War. So Montalbano is presented with a very cold case, one that intrigues him (and the reader), and one for which he must find a solution for his own peace of mind (even if the culprit is most likely dead now).
I really enjoyed this story. It's definitely one of the better crime stories I've picked up this year. Although I've moved on to Lucretia Grindle's The Faces of Angels (set in Florence), I'm sorely tempted to grab the next Montalbano mystery, The Snack Thief, as well. Oh, can you tell I've decided to keep on with my Summering in Italy reading project after all? As I'm on a roll I might as well stick with it.
You can find the full run down of Inspector Montalbano novels at Euro Crime. Check out Maxine's take on the book here. And I agree it's an excellent translation (complete with end notes) by Stephen Sartarelli.