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