Equal Danger
by Leonardo Sciascia
"I don’t want to explain too much in my
novels," the Sicilian author Leonardo
Sciascia once remarked.  But the unspoken
elements in his work—and there were

many—differed from the typical silent
complicity in the mysterious that one usually
finds in the south of Italy.  The enigmas in
Sciascia’s fabulistic thrillers instead brought
attention to the dark side of Sicilian public
life, that mysterious island where crime and
justice often come disguised in each other’s
garb.  Sciascia was born, in 1921, in
Racalmuto, a Sicilian village whose name,
from the Arabic
rahal maut, translates
literally as "village in ruins"—a fitting
starting place for an author who kept
returning to the aspects of his native soil
that were most debased and seemingly
beyond repair.  Perhaps the most salient
characteristic of this literary gadfly was his
willingness to confront entrenched powers
and proclaim unpalatable truths, which he
did both in his writings and political
activities.  He served in the Italian and
European parliament, was a journalist and
poet, and outspoken public intellectual.  But
his stories are Sciascia’s most lasting legacy,
no less truthful for being cast in the form of
fiction. When an interviewer told Leonardo
Sciascia that his books often showed up with
the mystery novels in American bookstores,
he replied: "At least I hope they will be
regarded as metaphysical mysteries."
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

One of the most cherished memes of the postmodern
mystery is the figure of the failed detective.  European
authors seem especially drawn to this intriguing
character type, who shockingly embodies an almost
total repudiation of the crime
genre’s most basic covenant—
namely a promise to solve
mysteries and put perpetrators
in jail.   

We find failed detectives, of vari-
ous sorts in the works of
Eco, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Alain
Robbe-Grillet, Leonardo Sciascia
and other modern Continental
authors.  This study in feckless-
ness has also appeared on American
soil, but it is perhaps worth noting
that its best known version, Jake Gittes in the film
Chinatown, bears the strong stamp of French-born and
Polish-raised director Roman Polanski.  By the same token,
the American author most closely associated with this type
of hero,
Paul Auster, spent a lengthy stint in France and is
one of the most Europeanized of U.S.-born novelists.

I suspect that a mixture of national-historical and personal-
biographical factors may contribute to this recurring
authorial choice.  In the case of Leonardo Sciascia, born in
Sicily in 1921, this writer would have no shortage of
reasons for ruminating on the failure of justice and the
inability of police detectives, and other upholders of civil
order, to prevail over purveyors of crime.   True, in a
postscript to
Equal Danger, Sciascia denies that his novel is
about Sicily in particular or even Italy in general.  But then
he adds: "the substance (if there is any) must be that of a
fable about power anywhere in the world, about power
that, in the impenetrable form of a concatenation that we
can roughly term
mafioso, works steadily greater
degradation."  In other words, the message may be
universal, but in such a way that a Sicilian is best able to
give it expression.  

Sciascia no doubt saw his detective here, the dogged
Inspector Rogas, in much the same way he perceived
himself.  Rogas is a man who holds to "principles in a
country where almost no one did."  He associates with
writers, possesses a rare and easy erudition, but is perhaps
less comfortable in fast-and-loose world of political
administration, where he finds it hard to adapt to the
dictates of expediency and pragmatism that invariably
trump values and ideals. Time and again in these pages,
Rogas finds that the very qualities that makes him a
superior detective are the ones that get him into trouble
with his superiors.  

At the outset of
Equal Danger, Rogas is asked to find out
who killed a district attorney, but is warned to act with
discretion if he should encounter "any shadow that might
blemish the limpid reputation of the deceased."  This will
not be the last time that Rogas is given ambiguous advice
from a person in a position of power.   And as the case
develops, more and more influential parties in the
government take an interest in the investigation—but with
little apparent enthusiasm for helping Rogas solve the

The first murder is followed by others.  Several judges in
various cities are killed, and even though Rogas believes he
has identified a prime suspect, his colleagues' apparent
incompetence allows the man to escape capture; then
Rogas gets called off the trail by his boss.   He finds
himself reassigned to a unit investigating political dissidents
and revolutionaries—now seen by higher-ups as prime
suspects in the string of murders—and pursuing one dead
end lead after another.   Could it be that Rogas's belief in
an individual culprit is mistaken, and that some shadowy
group is behind the crimes?  Even more to the point, in
this corrupt environment, who can tell the difference
between legitimate power and an irresponsible
underground movement?   Rogas meets with the President
of the Supreme Court who, in one of those brilliant
Dostoevskian dialogues so characteristic of Sciascia,
ridicules the investigator's old fashioned concept of guilt
and outlines his personal theory of justice.   

Justice sits in a perpetual state of danger, in a perennial state of
war….I’ll risk a paradox that can also be a prophecy:  the only
possible form of justice, of the administration of justice, could be, and
will be, the form that in a military war is called decimation.  One
man answers for humanity.  And humanity answers for the one
man.  No other way of administering justice will be possible.  I’ll go
further: there never has been any other….

So much is packed into these lines, and the ones that
follow—Christ imagery, delusional self-justification,
metaphorical reasoning, enigmatic self-confession.  And
these "Grand Inquisitor" moments—sometimes spiced with
evocations of René Girard and his theorizing on reciprocal
violence—are at the heart of Sciascia’s sense of crime
fiction.  Here, gradually over the course of the passing
chapters, readers will come to wish for a simpler world in
which a murder could be solved by putting a perpetrator
behind bars.   Instead, guilt here is a far more pervasive, far
more troubling state of being—more metaphysical than
evidential, more akin to original sin than to anything
described in the laws of the land.

The story surprises with its ending, which avoids the
classic plot resolutions that one associates with the crime
fiction genre.  But long before we reach the author’s
troubling denouement, readers can tell that this murder
mystery has turned into something much different.   
Sciascia himself summed up the change in tone in his
postscript describing his process in creating the work: "I
began to write it with amusement, and as I was finishing it I
was no longer amused."  I doubt you will be either, but
few works demonstrate in more compelling fashion how
the framework of the mystery story can serve as a
springboard for a fiction of social dysfunction.  In the final
analysis, this is more an indictment than a crime story—an
indictment on Sicily? on Italy? on your own society? on
human nature?  take your choice—but no less powerful for
that disturbing twist.

Ted Gioia's latest book is The Jazz Standards: A
Guide to the Repertoire.
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Further Clues:

Leonardo Sciascia's Mafia

The Mystery in Italy

NY Times obituary for Leonardo Sciascia
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