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il cane di terracotta

24 june 2020

I hadn't read Il cane di terracotta in eleven years, and never in Italian, so in the course of things it came back around. The late Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano novels are among the rare mystery novels that you want to read again even if you have a reasonably good memory of their "solution." Il cane di terracotta is the second, the longest, and the most elaborate of the Montalbanos, a sort of condition-of-Sicily novel that lays out most of Camilleri's literary debts and presents nearly the full cast of characters (including, crucially, the macaronic receptionist Catarella) that would populate one of the best-loved detective series.

I will say that Il cane di terracotta is perhaps a bit too long for its material. There are two mystery plots. One involves mafia gunrunners, a long-hidden kingpin who strategically surrenders to Salvo Montalbano, and an inexplicable burglary at a supermarket that turns out to be no burglary at all. This stuff rambles on across the novel's 266 pages, and at times the explanations become inexplicable. Many people are shot in the course of resolving the mystery, which of course never is never truly resolved by the forces of justice, only petering out when everyone possible (including Montalbano himself) has been shot enough times that they all get tired of the excitement.

The more intriguing mystery involves the title terracotta dog. Investigating the gunrunning mystery, Montalbano unearths a secret cave where two corpses, turned to parchment and bone many years since, lie in an eternal embrace under the watchful eye of the title canine. Even the oldest residents of Vigàta have no idea who these long-deceased murder victims might be. But a shred of a clue leads to a filament of a strand of a web, and before long Salvo knows that he can piece together a tragedy from the Second World War.

Later in the series, Camilleri might have focused more intently on the terracotta-dog story and given some of the other material a miss. But he needed Il cane di terracotta, I guess, to turn the marvelous beginning of La forma dell'acqua into a full-fledged series. The later novels would get sometimes funnier, and sometimes more serious, than Cane, but by the time that Montalbano winds up this meta-literary puzzle, the essential elements for the whole wonderful score or more of novels are present.

Camilleri, Andrea. Il cane di terracotta. 1996. Palermo: Sellerio, 2014.