It’s hard, having relatively recently come to the Montalbano books after seeing a few of the TV series, not to people the pages with images of screen actors, but while there are some double-take moments (Salvo with hair, Salvo smoking!) it’s refreshing to have confirmed that the films have remained true to the letter as well as the spirit of the novels.
The Terracotta Dog has many attractive ingredients. Overtly, the plot concerns a mafioso’s willing entrapment by Commissario Montalbano. But things don’t turn out as expected, putting Montalbano’s life in danger. Along with the Mafia thread, we have the discovery of dead bodies concealed in a hidden cave, a mystery which, though dateable to the closing stages of the Second World War, seems to have echoes of a pagan past usually confined to archaeology. We mustn’t forget Salvo’s long-running relationship with the long-suffering Livia (whom he seems to have great difficulty committing to), and his dealings with his police associates (particularly Catarella, who somehow combines imbecility with an endearing charm).
Camilleri’s writing, modulated through Stephen Sartarelli’s comfortable translation (with Sartarelli’s own helpful end-notes to set the scene), comes across as sensitive, humorous and literary, all at the same time. From the point of view of a northern European, the Sicilian setting is both exotic and understated: we get the feel of the place but without the touristy excrescences, and Camilleri’s love of his native soil is evident throughout, even when the less pleasant aspects of the local population make their inevitable presence felt. Above all, you feel he likes people, and with hardly any of the characters appearing as pure plot mechanisms you sense that the Sicilians you meet in the pages are essentially reflections of Camilleri’s acquaintances, and their stories the histories of real-life people.
This, the second of the series, was a joy to read. Not your conventional detective (nor detective novel), Montalbano is a very human crime-solver whom it is easy to empathise with, whether he is dealing with press conferences or superiors, or when interviewing wayward witnesses or fellow travellers along the rocky road to truth. The classic outsider, Montalbano’s maverick approach to the puzzles he is confronted with is compounded of a hint of the lone cowboy of Westerns, a pinch of literary dilettantism and a soupçon of culinary appreciation. It’s wonderful to know that there are so many other titles still to discover and explore.