Although The Track of Sand is the twelfth in Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano mystery series, I must admit it is this reader’s first acquaintance with either his or any other Italian “whodunits,” and if this stands in any way representative of the genre, further acquaintance is certainly in order. Set in a fictional Sicilian town, where Montalbano heads up a sleepy police department that has more in common with the Keystone Kops than it does with a modern high tech force, indeed the Inspector himself is more in common with Jaques Clouseau than he does with Lieutenant Columbo. It is not that he is a fool; it is simply that his head is cluttered with the details of daily living. His cases are only one of his concerns, and not always the one that most interests him.
Camilleri is not writing a thriller. As much as the particular mystery is entertaining, it is the character study of Montalbano that makes this book something special. He is worried about aging. His eyes are beginning to go. Others suggest that his mind is not working as well as it once did. He has problems with women. He is in a long distance relationship with one woman, something of a friendly relation with another locally, and now he becomes involved with a beauty who is part of his latest case. He is a man who is offended when a beautiful woman seduces him for a one night stand, who uses elaborate circumlocutions to describe sexual matters, and who laments a previous relationship with a younger woman. He worries about social interactions, especially when he is invited to an upper class charity horse race and dinner. He spends a lot of his day thinking about what he is going to eat and then a lot more time eating it. He is impatient with the men who work for him, but defends them with his superiors. All this is to say, Montalbano is not your cliché detective.
In The Track of Sand, he wakes up one morning from a dream in which he finds himself mounted on a woman who seems to merge into a horse to discover the corpse of a real horse that has been brutally beaten to death on the beach not far from his house. He investigates, but when he leaves the scene to shower and dress, the horse’s carcass is stolen away. Then things begin to get complicated. The local mafia runs illegal horse races. Does the dead horse have something to do with that? A beautiful socialite equestrian reports a valuable horse missing. Another prominent horse owner has had a horse stolen. Suddenly burglars who don’t seem to take very much of value begin breaking into the Inspector’s house. Are they really burglars or is someone trying to send him a message?
Montalbano’s methods are anything but ordinary. He comes up with hypotheses and then goes about trying to find evidence. If a theory proves wrong, he imagines a new one and sets out to work on that one. Indeed, the whole system of Italian justice seems casual and haphazard. The right hand doesn’t always seem to want to work with the left. Different jurisdictions work against each other. Prosecutors communicate with the police obtusely. Investigations stall as detectives wait for specialists to show up. Suspects are lied to. Evidence is shoved in back pockets and forgotten. Cases, if this is any example, are solved as much by happenstance as by investigative work, almost in spite of the investigative work, and I guess this is what makes the book so much fun.
The translation by Stephen Sartarelli is to my mind a bit stiff at times, almost clunky and not quite natural. It reads as though written by a non-native speaker. Also there is an attempt to characterize local dialect for some of the characters and it isn’t always easy to make out what is being said. “Halloo? Iss izza….” “Chief, ‘at’d be summon says ‘e’s Pasquale Cirribbiccio onna tiliphone.” I assume this is meant to parallel what Camilleri does in the original, but for my money I could do without it. It calls attention to itself for no good reason. Still these are minor complaints that become less and less annoying as you get engrossed in the characters and their machinations.