11 Feb 2013
"The Terracotta Dog" by Andrea Camilleri
I'm not really a big fan of crime fiction. It is a genre that is encumbered with more than an average amount of bad writing and often the characters are lifeless and cardboard-y as they are little more than supporting roles being overshadowed by gruesome murders. There are a few exceptions though. I have a real fondness for Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole, although the murders in that particular series are usually very gruesome, and Carl Morck from Jussi Adler-Olsen's series about Department Q.
Another crime fiction hero that I have a fondness for is their Italian counter-party, Inspector Montalbano who is created by the author Andrea Camilleri. Where Hole and Morck are socially inept, frontline combat types who have little understanding of the finer things in life. Montalbano is a different sort of gentleman altogether, although not exactly a social animal, he does have friends and does attend the occasional dinner party. He is a part of a local community and that plays a vital role in his work, being able to draw on old acquaintances and friends for information and inspiration.
In "The Terracotta Dog", Montalbano is investigating a mafia related crime involving caves on the beach being used for smuggling. The caves, it turns out, are more than just a convenient meeting place for smugglers, it is also a tomb to two heavily decayed bodies, who are holding each other in death and are being watched over by a large terracotta dog. This is a mystery so intriguing that it is impossible for Montalbano not to investigate it, even though it is obviously an old crime and even though him and his colleagues have work enough already. In his quest to find out who the couple are and why they were entombed in the caves, Montalbano is led to stories from the Second World War where Sicily was plagued by the utmost poverty and destitution.
For me the plot was nothing special. It wasn't really a riveting story but what makes it much more than an average book are the little touches that Camilleri uses to spice up the story. Montalbano's love of good Sicilian food is a recurring theme and one that I love - it's rare for a crime fiction novel to make you want to cook more! All in all, it is these touches of Italianess, of history and culture, that makes this really come to life - that and the wonderful dry sense of humour of Inspector Montalbano. Read it if it you (like me) have a love for Italy and enjoy a little mystery here and there.