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
First line: 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).
Mrs. Peabody awards The Terracotta Dog a highly entertaining 4 stars.
I do like this series but agree with you on the depiction of women, I think it gets worse as the series goes on. I love the atmosphere, location and the interplay between the detectives – I think you need to read a few before their characters and idiosyncracies gel – for example the playboy philanderer who becomes the world’s most conscientious parent, etc. The descriptions of food in some of the books is brilliant. I also love the translation, especially the translator’s notes at the back of each book.
Thanks, Maxine (you are mightily quick off the mark!).
In spite of my annoyance at the depiction of Ingrid et al, I would like to read more, which is testimony to the quality of the rest of the novel. I liked the translator’s notes at the back of the book as well (though I only discovered these once I’d finished the book, unfortunately – but will know to look out for them next time). Great holiday reading – will save some up for the summer.
Mrs P-I think this series is superb, and have no objection to the portrayal of Ingrid, in see through blouses or not. This Swedish lady is definitely no bimbo and she does play an important part in several of the novels, as an ex-racing driver with numerous useful contacts, most of them male I will admit. ;o)
There are ten more Montalbanos translated into English for you to enjoy.
Thanks for your perspective, sir! Yes, I noticed that Ingrid was a dab hand with a spanner, but you could argue that this just increases her male fantasy points. She’s drop dead gorgeous AND you can talk to her about cars! Anyhow, have now resolved to start at the beginning with The Shape of Water and see how I go. It’ll be interesting to see if the ‘Ingrid factor’, as I shall dub it, starts to interfere with my fundamental enjoyment of the series. Hope not…looking forward to the other 10. Is the series still going, I wonder?
Mrs P- There are still some more to be translated by the brilliant Stephen Sartarelli. I am obviously not the average man as cars don’t interest me, but the food descriptions are very tempting.
I hope you enjoy the series as much as I have done.
Thanks, Norm 😀
I enjoy the Montalbano character and series, have read about five of them. But the author’s characterization of women and/or relationships with them is often sexist, something I try to ignore to enjoy the other aspects, including the wit, and often political points or human sympathy. However, sexism is not something I readily ignore in books.
I am taking a break from this series but will go back to them — with blinders on so I don’t yell at the author about the stereotypes of women. Or the sometimes archaic attitudes towards sexuality.
The food descriptions are wonderful. I see that Montalbano is either looking forward to a meal, eating it or reminiscing about it. Always fun. (And I’ve learned about seafood I’ve never heard of.)
And I love Sartorelli’s notes in the back. They are great and often humorous.
Thanks, Kathy. I think that’s pretty much how I feel too. I’m a real foodie, so will enjoy the books in that respect.
This discussion also makes me realise how skilled a ‘cook’ Camilleri is as an author – he tosses a number of different ingredients into the writing mix (crime, politics, humour, sex, food), and as long as you like perhaps three out the four then you will keep reading. Clever guy.
RSS reader is the solution to being quick off mark;-).
Norman is the expert male view on the topic – personally I don’t mind Ingrid (and others) being drop dead gorgeous, car experts, v rich, etc – it is the “falling for Montalbano” every time that gets me, given M’s and the women’s relative ages. Mrs P, I can’t recall if Livia features in this particular book, she is M’s on-off girlfriend and the only “normal” woman in the series. In the first few books there is quite a lot of good material between the two, addressing issues of committment, family, etc. But this seems to have faded out in the later books in favour of older male wish fulfillment ;-).
however, as Norman says, it’s a great series and I’ll continue to read it – as I empathise with a lot of it (eg the Italian politics and M’s fury at “modernisation” in general.)
Thanks, Maxine. I’ll be sure to call on Norman for his expert view in future discussions on this topic ;).
So they always fall for him?! That seems to be a classic pitfall for middle-aged male writers who create middle-aged male characters. A prime example is Michael Blomquist in Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy. Lots of women readers are amused by his magical pulling powers and think MB is a bit of a wish fulfillment on the author’s part…
Livia did feature in The Terracotta Dog, but interestingly didn’t impress herself on my memory (had to go back and check!).
Montalbano has a lot of sympathy for many people — immigrants, workers, gay people, and some women, as in August Heat, when he sympathizes with and aids the sister of a murder victim. I look at those aspects positively, and I admit I laugh out loud often while reading of his exploits and comments.
That is a good observation about the later books and how women characters are treated. I don’t really understand the relationship with Livia. She’s in and out of the story, at her or Montalbano’s whims.
But I don’t read the books for that aspect; it’s the overall story, characters, politics and wit. Also, the human sympathy.
Thanks very much, Kathy. I’ve just ordered second-hand copies of #1, 3 and 4, and am looking forward to seeing how the series develops.
Yes, one had to laugh at Blomkvist or one would have had to throw the book(s) across the room. It was a good decision to cut all of that out of the Swedish films.
Livia sometimes does not appear in the books or is just a voice on the end of the phone, but in the first few there is a story arc about a little boy that is poignant. I think the author has kind of lost interest in her by about book 8 though, and she is not portrayed paticularly sympathetically, though seems to be a strong Italian (henpecking!) woman. I suppose I feel quite forgiving of these books but have definitely stopped reading other series that are overtly sexist. (Lee Child’s Jack Reacher for example, who woman always fall for, a different one in each book – though I find it hard to refuse a free copy if offered I would not bother to actually buy one myself nowadays or bother to take one home from the library.)
Thanks, Maxine. It would be an interesting project to look at the depiction of women across the works of different writers, crime genres, national groupings etc. Haven’t read any Child thus far – may steer clear after what you’ve said…
Can’t wait to read what you say about the Camilleri’s you just purchased. I read five so far and have mixed views on each. I will eventually read all of them. On a summer afternoon when I go out to get good iced tea and look for a park bench, Montalbano will accompany me.
Yes, I need Livia explained to me. Maxine is probably right; author and character are probably bored with her and don’t know what to do with her.
Lee Child, hmmmm…I read a few until I got very sick of the ultra-violence. Then I read the last one where Reacher is sadistically enjoying killing two women, enjoying revenge. I can’t even describe the details nor how he relished each knife blow. It sickened me. To have to kill in self-defense is one thing; to relish it is another.
That did it for me and Jack Reacher; no future dates with him! I was done!
This is a terrific website. Last night I scrolled back and read older posters, enjoying them, now a new late-night reading project. Excellent and I agree on much.
Thanks, Kathy. I’m looking forward to getting stuck in to the other Montalbanos, though I need to backtrack to number 1 before I can progress to number 3! Very glad indeed that you like the website and thank you for taking the time to read and to comment. The best bit for me is hearing everyone else’s opinions and views 🙂
Yes: People’s opinions of books, plots, authors are just like the odors of good coffee or chocolate, just to inhale right in, the more incisive, and witty the better.
Can’t wait to read more of your critiques of Camilleri and other writers.
Glad you decided to give the series a go – I really enjoy these, though I have to say I have a soft spot for crime fiction set in Italy. There is a delay in publication in English, so they can fell a little dated. I find Montalbano’s obsession with food just serves to make me hungry when I’m reading!
Thanks, Suzigun. Another three have dropped through my letterbox since I wrote the review, and I intend to ‘start again’ with number #1 once I’ve finished my current read. Loving the food descriptions, and wish I had an obliging cook who would leave me delicacies in the fridge/oven every day.
Love the comments but am surprised to note that you have all referred to reading the novels, which I have certainly read, but nobody seems to have seen or even heard of the Montalbano series on television or DVD. SBS (Special Broadcasting Service) here in Australia, which brings us foreign language programs on free to air, has shown them at least twice, subtitled, and lending libraries have the DVDs.
I suspect Livia is a useful novelistic device! She credentials our hero as a virile Latin male without intruding into the books and being nominally attached, he is not obliged to jump every desirable female he meets, even Ingrid; only does this once as I recall.
Hi Anne – yes, a few episodes with Luca Zingaretti in the title role were shown on BBC4 in (I think) 2008 and 2010. I did catch a couple myself, but wasn’t particularly taken with them. Having read some of the novels now, which I like better, I think it’s because their wry humour (particularly in relation to Salvo’s sometimes outrageous behaviour) didn’t come across so clearly to me in the adaptations. Will give these another go if the opportunity arises – might view them differently now I’ve read the originals. Did you like the TV versions?
I think you’re right about Livia and the functions she performs. I’ve read four of the novels now, and the one I liked best was The Snack Thief, in which Livia has a more visible role. I particularly enjoyed the moments where she called Montalbano on his attitudes or behaviour (seemingly the only one who can do so effectively). I didn’t like the first in the series at all (The Shape of Water), and this was directly due to the ‘Ingrid factor’ (see post and comments for context). I suspect my opinion on the remaining novels may well be divided as well!
Hi, Mrs P!
Yes, I enjoy the TV adaptations. They are, as you say, different from the novels, and I have difficulty picking favourite novels as I saw the TV versions of some, Terracotta Dog, Snack Thief etc, before locating the books. Since the characters are Italian it is useful to see them embodied by Italian actors more vividly than a female reader of Anglo-Saxon background can recreate them in the privacy of her own imagination! And the scenery! And Salvo swimming! An added bonus.
I have to say it – one has to accept that these are novels written by an Italian of the male persuasion for Italians originally. Perhaps some of the commentators above might be happier with Brunetti and the Marshal whose female creators, Donna Leon and Magdalen Nabb, created characters for an English-speaking readership in the first instance and gave them a regular home and family life. Just a thought.
Thanks, Anne. Next time one of the TV versions pops up, I’ll have another go. I take your point about about Italian vs English-speaking readerships – and that’s an interesting contrast you pick up on about the depiction of the investigator’s family life. I wonder if a couple of other factors are generational outlook (Camilleri born in 1925) and the time of publication (Shape of Water originally published in 1994, which is – gulp – already 17 years ago). It ‘s made me curious to read some crime by other Italian authors – I seem to remember that there are a couple of younger female authors that have received a bit of attention more recently. Would be interesting to compare.
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