Review: The Track of Sand by Andrea Camilleri

The previous two installments of the Inspector Montalbano books that I’ve read have been enjoyable despite seeming a little surreal, particularly when it comes to the local politics they depict. But as I read The Track of Sand while the Italian political system crumbled (again) in a heap on my TV screen I couldn’t help but be reminded of the old adage that truth is almost always stranger than fiction. In fact a book featuring a disappearing horse carcass, pathologically uncommunicative neighbouring police jurisdictions and a protagonist haunted by vaguely erotic dreams is positively tame in comparison the farce that is Silvio Berlusconi.

Montalbano wakes one morning to see a horse lying on the beach outside his front window. When he investigates he discovers the horse is dead, “its whole body bearing the signs of a long, ferocious beating” which makes Montalbano furious to the point of imagining he could do the same to the horse’s killers. He calls for his offsiders to come and help him collect evidence and review the crime scene so that they might track down the animal’s killers. Unfortunately the carcass disappears before the team has a chance to do everything they need to do and the investigation becomes somewhat haphazard. They do eventually learn that the horse is likely one (of two) kidnapped from the stables of a wealthy man and this introduces the beautiful Rachele Esterman, horse rider and seducer of men, to the picture.

I don’t imagine anyone reads this series purely for the plots. There always seems to be some woolly meanderings and illogical moments; here, for example, almost the entire mystery would have been avoided if only one of three supposedly intelligent and experienced policemen had taken a single photograph of the dead horse. There’s a rather clumsy link to another case too that seems to assume more knowledge than the reader of this book could have. But there is so much else to enjoy about the novels that it’s easy enough to let slide these relatively minor problems.

Montalbano’s fury on behalf of the poor horse and determination to locate the culprits, his obsession with finding good food (and his reaction when served stuff of lesser quality), his fear of getting older and his sporadically autocratic behaviour make him a well-rounded, if not always likeable character. His almost prudish reaction to his unorthodox seduction by the gorgeous Rachele is probably all too credible (because apparently the word no is not in his vocabulary). Though this was one of the things which prompted me to reflect on the disheartening depiction of women in this book and the series overall. On my limited exposure to one quarter of the series I can only remember women being seen as victims, his sexual partners or his cleaner. If he hasn’t slept with Ingrid then she’s the exception but there’s so much unresolved sexual tension between the two I’m not sure she can count as a fully formed character in her own right.

However, as always, the book is filled to the brim with rich humour, stemming mostly from the dialect-laden dialogue and Montalbano’s internal monologue. It reminds me how dolts like me who can only read in one language are indebted to translators with the skill of Stephen Sartarelli. The surreal exchange between Montalbano and the linguistically challenged Catarella when Rachele Esterman first appears in the story is, alone, worth reading the book for. This is a very readable and (in an age when bloated 500+ page books appear to becoming ‘the norm’) delightfully short novel offering many moments of pure joy for the reader.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The Track of Sand has been reviewed at Crime ScrapsEuro Crime, Milo’s Rambles

I have also reviewed August Heat and The Wings of the Sphinx

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 3.5/5
Translator Stephen Sartarelli
Publisher Mantle [this translation 2010, original edition 2007]
ISBN 9780330507660
Length 279 pages
Format hard cover
Book Series #12 in the Inspector Montalbano series.
Source borrowed from the library

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11 Responses to Review: The Track of Sand by Andrea Camilleri

  1. Kathy D. says:

    I had a bit of trouble with this particular book in the series because of the meandering plot and depiction of women; the latter has annoyed me in a few books. However, because of the humor and the points you cite which help me to overlook the flaws, I enjoyed it. I laugh whenever I read Catarella’s dialogue (a friend laughs just hearing his name), and when I see Montalbano’s frustration at the messages Catarella leaves him or tries to explain.
    I enjoy Montalbano’s thought process and his constant ruminating about a past meal, enjoying a present meal (even if he’s in a trattoria prior to his real meal at home prepared by his long-suffering housekeeper), or fantasizing about a future meal. It’s all fun.
    Some of the books do deal with real social issues, and some are just complex mysteries.
    I do enjoy spending a day in Vigata in the station, car or mostly on the beach. This is one series that really brings distraction, entertainment and a vicarious, albeit one-day, vacation for me. I save up these books for when I really need that (even if I have to grit my teeth on the depiction of women).

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  2. Maxine says:

    I agree with your assessment of this series. Montalbano’s heart is certainly in the right place. I enjoyed the earlier books more, in which he has a nice boss, then a nasty one, and has to undertake various deviousnesses to get himself into the position he is now in, with quite a bit of freedom to pursue his own investigations rather than Mafia-controlled ones. I think the development of his team (none of whom liked each other very much at the start) was also great to read. Nowadays the books have somewhat plateaued, because as you say the plots are not their strongest point and all the inter-colleague power play and team members’ personalities have got to the point where there is not much new to say. I always feel sorry for Livia in these novels, until she actually appears that is (if she does)! She was very human in the couple of books about the snack thief, but now has become a bit of a caricature, though at least independent. I still enjoy the novels, for Montalbano and the wonderful translations/glossaries, but not as much as I did in the past.

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  3. Bernadette – Thanks for this excellent review. Montalbano is a friend of mine; I do have a soft spot for him. But you’re spot-on about the what’s been happening with the plots. And like you, I’m not exactly thrilled with the way women are depicted. I’m glad Maxine mentioned The Snack Thief, because in that novel, we really see Livia as a strong character, and important to the plot. There are hints of what she could be as a character in other novels, too, and I wish honestly that she were stronger. But my admiration to Stephen Sartarelli for brilliant translations in this series. I love the humour, the use of language, and the cultural and literary references. None of those would be half as good without Sartarelli’s work.

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  4. Kathy D. says:

    Yes! to Stephen Sartarelli, not only for the brilliant translations with all of the biting wit, but also for his endnotes, which are just so much fun to read, with their information and humor as well.

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  5. Cathy says:

    Denis and I have added “poissonally in poisson” to our lexicons. I could hug Sartarelli for his amazing talent and skill in bringing these books to those of us who may like the sound of Italian but certainly can’t speak it.

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    • I know exactly what you mean Cathy…it’s a real treat for me too. One newspaper review I read was quite snippy about the translation and the Catarella character and I wanted to write and say they had missed the point entirely.

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