Andrea Camilleri, The Terracotta Dog, translated from the Italian by Stephen Sartarelli (London: Picador, 2004 . A thoroughly entertaining read, with a very likeable investigator and well-constructed plot. Only the cliched representations of women let it down 4 stars
Opening sentence: To judge from the entrance the dawn was making, it promised to be an iffy day – that is, blasts of angry sunlight one minute, fits of freezing rain the next, all of it seasoned with sudden gusts of wind…
I came across this novel in a charity shop the other day, and thought I’d give it a go, as I hadn’t read any Camilleri novels before and it looked promising.
The Terracotta Dog is the second in Camilleri’s series featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano, who has been described by The Guardian as ‘a cross between Columbo and […] Philip Marlowe, with the added culinary idiosyncracies of an Italian Maigret’. He makes for an intelligent but endearingly human investigator in a police procedural that never takes itself too seriously. The novel’s rather gentle critique of the incompetence of the Sicilian police force, the activities of the Mafia, and the corruption of the ‘system’, is leavened with considerable humour.
At the heart of the novel is the tale of two lovers, who are found dead in a secret cave fifty years after their disappearance, guarded by the eponymous terracotta dog. Montalbano’s investigations into this cold case lead him in all kinds of unexpected directions, including a tutorial on semiotics (the study of signs). I loved the fact that Camilleri wasn’t afraid to reference Umberto Eco’s Treatise of General Semiotics and Julia Kristeva’s Semiotics – both key texts in the field. Eco, of course, is a semiotician turned crime writer, and Camilleri gives a stylish nod to other crime novelists as well: Montalbano has read both Dürrenmatt and his namesake Montalbán, the creator of the Spanish Pepe Carvalho series (apparently a deliberate homage on the part of the author).
One aspect of the novel I particularly enjoyed was its expertly constructed plot. Camilleri is an excellent storyteller, who knows how to weave a stylish narrative. This skill may well be linked to the author’s ‘other’ job as a teacher of stage direction at he Silvio d’Amico Academy of the Dramatic Arts.
The only down-side was the cliched and quite literally laughable depiction of women in the text. The most extreme example is the character of Ingrid, who is a young, blond, long-legged Swede draped in conveniently see-through blouses. Having become used to positive depictions of strong women in Scandinavian crime series like The Killing, it was a bit of shock to be confronted by the old stereotypes of women as either objects of sexual desire or fabulously good cooks. Some bits were so daft they made me chortle out loud, so arguably there was some added entertainment value (though if you were to ask me on different day I might decide to be grumpier about the sexism).
An extract from the novel is available here.
Mrs. Peabody awards The Terracotta Dog a highly entertaining 4 stars.