Equal Danger
by Leonardo Sciascia
Essay 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
various sorts in the works of
Umberto Eco, Friedrich Dürrenmatt,
Alain Robbe-Grillet, Leonardo
Sciascia and other modern
Continental authors. This study
in fecklessness 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 writes on music, literature and popular culture. His
latest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by Oxford
University Press.

Essay published August 23, 2011
New Angles on an Old Genre
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Further Clues:

Leonardo Sciascia's Mafia

The Mystery in Italy

NY Times obituary for Leonardo Sciascia
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A look at contemporary currents in
"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