After a lifetime spent in the theatre, both as a producer and drama coach, Andrea Camilleri began to write crime novels when he was approaching 70. He had written other books, but none of them had received the critical and commercial success that came with the invention of Inspector Salvatore Montalbano, the introspective, food-loving hero whose attempts to see decency and justice prevail, against impossible odds, in his native Sicily are at the heart of a remarkable series. The Track of Sand is the 12th Montalbano mystery to appear in English, and as funny and intriguing as the best of its predecessors.
Salvo, as his friends and favoured associates call him, is at last having to get accustomed to the unfortunate fact that he is growing old. He is 56, and the prospect of retirement is beckoning. He is shocked when his sidekick Augello suddenly puts on glasses to read a report. He soon acknowledges that he himself is long-sighted. More worrying, though, is the short-term memory loss that occasionally afflicts him, as in a scene on which the whole plot is dependent.
Camilleri skilfully uses Salvo' temporary forgetfulness to account for a number of inexplicable events that take place whenever he is away from his seaside home. The revelation, when it comes, is entirely credible.
In the early novels, Montalbano is visited regularly by his girlfriend Livia, who flies down from Genoa, where she works, to keep her policeman happy. The relationship is still functioning, but only just, for Livia has long stopped thinking of married bliss and motherhood. She has become bitter and jealous and doesn't believe her lover even when he is speaking the truth. Salvo, of late, has been succumbing to temptations of the flesh and enduring post-coital angst as a result.
In The Track of Sand, the temptress is a seductive and wealthy jockey, Rachele, whose missing horse is the reason for their meeting. She is a friend of Ingrid, whose attempts at seducing Salvo have been foiled in previous volumes. She is in the habit of slipping into his bed, and he is in the habit of slipping out of it in the middle of the night to take an ice cold shower to dampen his ardour. All the old friends are here - Catarella, the lovable illiterate who answers the phone at the police station; the pedantic Fazio, who keeps detailed notes on every trivial fact he uncovers; Adelina, the housekeeper who leaves wonderful meals in the fridge; Dr Lattes, the cabinet chief who won't be dissuaded that Salvo isn't the father of two children.
Once again, Stephen Sartarelli has worked casual wonders with his translation. Because this book is meant to surprise and thrill the reader, I shall refrain from mentioning its surprises and the the thrills that come in their wake. I eagerly anticipate the 13th, irresistible instalment.
Paul Bailey's novel 'Chapman's Odyssey' is published by Bloomsbury