Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Salvo Montalbanothe respected chief of detectives in the fictional town of Vigāta, Sicilyhas garnered millions of fans worldwide with his sardonic, engaging take on Sicilian life and his genius for deciphering the most enigmatic of crimes. From sly comedy at the expense of his fellow policemen to personal soul-searching, Montalbano is a detective whose earthiness and imagination coalesce into a unique, unfailing appeal.
Despite Montalbano's love for his region, its cuisine, and its charms, The Terra-Cotta Dog and the entire Montalbano series never shy away from portraying the destructive and never-ending influence of the Mafia on Sicily's politics and culture. A place of great contrasts, Sicily strives toward the modern world with one hand, while with the other it clings to its cruel traditions. In this milieu of corruption and dishonesty it sometimes seems that Montalbano is powerless; nonetheless, his sharp instinct and even sharper intelligence leads him unerringly toward the truth.
When The Terra-Cotta Dog begins, Inspector Montalbano is having a decidedly "iffy" day, but as he rightly suspects, the worst is yet to come. The night before, Montalbano had been roused from his evening reading by a call from Gegčan old friend and school chum who is now a smalltime pimp and drug dealer as well as the inspector's primary conduit to the mob. Gegč has an important message for the inspector: he is wanted, alone, for a meeting the following morning at dawn with dreaded Mafia lieutenant Tano the Greek.
Realizing that Tano's invitation is impossible to refuse, Montalbano approaches his encounter with one of Sicily's most dangerous criminals unarmed and frankly afraid. It seems he may soon be another of the many corpses that litter the island. In The Terra-Cotta Dog, however, appearances are not what they seem.
Tano, it turns out, far from wanting to harm the inspector, has arranged the meeting because he wants to stage his own arrest and thereby retire from the island's underworldthe organization whose shadow lies over almost everything that transpires in Vigāta.
Soon the reverberations from Tano's "retirement" and a seemingly unrelated and inexplicable robbery lead Montalbano to a secret grotto turned illicit arms cache. The discovery is a tremendous coup for the inspector and a blow to the Mafia. Everything seems to point to a promotion for the publicity-shy Montalbano and a smooth end to the case.
But in The Terra-Cotta Dog even a secret cave has a hidden life. A snag in the inspector's mind draws him back to the grottoand deeper into the island's collective memorywhere he finds a long-dead pair of lovers wrapped in eternal embrace surrounded by an enigmatic arrangement of items: a bowl of coins, a jug of water, and a life-sized terra-cotta dog. Like all things in this novel, however, the strangely ritualized scene of the couple's interment doesn't mean what it seems. There is no good reason to solve these murdersthe culprit is surely long dead or lost in senilitybut Montalbano continues searching with the same determination that tormented him to continue hounding after the truth in the first novel in the series, The Shape of Water.
Sifting through layers of the island's fascist past and gleaning clues from an unlikely source, Montalbano begins to piece together the fate of a pair of star-crossed lovers in the chaos of the Allied invasion of Sicily during World War II. As he finally tracks down the only person alive who can answer his many questions, Montalbano learns that some secrets are better left at rest.
Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano mystery series, bestsellers in Italy and Germany, has been adapted for Italian television and translated into German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Japanese, Dutch, and Swedish. He lives in Rome.
- To many, Inspector Montalbano's sense of justice may seem oddafter all, he is willing to make a deal with a Mafioso, his best friend is a pimp, he is involved in blackmail himself (albeit for good reasons), and he is as obsessed with solving an fifty-year-old crime as he is in tracking down a network of arms smugglers. What do you think of his approach to fighting crime?
- Near the beginning of The Terra-Cotta Dog, Montalbano picks up the phone to call the commissioner, but dials his lover, Livia, instead. This chance misdial alters the entire course of the story. Discuss instances in which the play of chance has altered the course of your lifefor better or worse.
- Playacting and staging are important themes throughout the novel. Choose and discuss one or two instances in which playacting and staging are central to the action. Do they share similarities? Are they related to the other, non-staged police actions in the novel?
- Inspector Montalbano carries on a long-term, long-distance relationship with a woman from northern Italy. In what ways do you think this relationship worksor doesn't workfor Montalbano? and Livia?
- It is clear that police procedures and attitudes are depicted quite differently in a Sicilian setting than they are popularly portrayed in American entertainment and media. Choose three differences and discuss them. What are the advantages and disadvantages of these different approaches to maintaining the law? Do you think that the American media and the entertainment business portray a convincing portrait of police work? What about Camilleri?
- Inspector Montalbano has a passionate relationship with food. When it is good, he treats it as something sublime, when it is bad, a tragedy; yet, to approach food in an indifferent manner seems the greatest crime of all! What insight does this provide into Montalbano's character?
- Fascism, World War II, and the Allied invasion of Sicily form the backdrop to a significant part of the novel's action. Can you identify ways that the war is portrayed differently in the novel than it is usually portrayed by Americans? Do you think this is an accurate portrayal of the experience of Sicilians during the war? Quite the opposite of the so-called Greatest Generation, many of the Sicilians in the novel seem to wish to forget it entirely. What are some of the reasons that might make such convenient amnesia attractive?
- Sicily has long had a particularly important place in the American public imagination. Can you think of some popular stereotypes relating to Sicilian culture and society? Can you think of some other popular novels, movies, etc., that portray Sicilian life? Do you think the Sicilian setting in The Terra-Cotta Dog fits with other portrayals in books and films, or did it strike you as unique?
- Inspector Montalbano often seems to be a curious blend of jaded cynic and honor-bound do-gooder. Do these contrasting ways of seeing the world seem to fit together in his character? If so, how? And if not, how is it that readers still find him such a sympathetic character?