The Day of the Owl
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
Essay by Ted Gioia

At 6:30 on at a Saturday morning a man is shot
while trying to catch a bus in a public square in a
Sicilian town. The local police sergeant arrives
on the scene within minutes, but despite an
abundance of potential witnesses—the bus driver,
the conductor, numerous other
passengers, a street vendor—
no one steps forward to provide
useful details. All first hand
accounts are vague to the point
of nullity. This is Sicily, after
all, where, when people speak
of putting their faith in a higher
power than the law, they aren't
necessarily thinking about God
the father…maybe more the
local Godfather.    

Captain Bellodi, a northerner from Parma, is
assigned the case, and soon has reason to dwell on
one of the quirks of Sicilians. "No one talks," he
muses, "but luckily for us…everyone writes. They
may forget to sign, but they do write. After every
murder, every hold-up, there are a dozen
anonymous letters on my desk." The victim had
been a contractor who, as Bellodi pieces together
the story, had refused to pay protection money to
the local mafia. After he ignored various warnings,
he was killed—both in retribution and as a warning
to others who might be inclined to follow his

But other murders follow the initial killing, each
one apparently connected to the original crime.
The national papers pick up on the widening web
of violence, and rumors and leaks create a stir, as
the case threatens to involve people of power and
influence not just in Sicily, but also in Rome.
Bellodi is undeterred by the growing agitation
caused by his investigation, which he pursues in
a manner both surprising and unconventional. He
is soft, when others would be hard; indirect where
his peers would go on the attack. His interrogations
sometimes resemble philosophical discourses—
marked by the conversational flair that is a
trademark of Sciascia's finest works—and when
he does play hardball, his play is built on high stakes
bluffing rather than a clear trail of evidence.   

If this were a typical detective story, these qualities
would be sufficient to solve the crimes and put
the perpetrators behind bars. But the metaphysical
mysteries of Leonardo Sciascia are never quite so
straightforward. In his crime stories, identifying
the culprit is the least of an investigator's problems.  
Instead, a murkier, ill-defined adversary always
remains at large, and can hardly be subdued by
the forces of law and order….because it often
masquerades under the guise of law and order.
Bellodi has set off a chain of events beyond his
power to control, and bringing him up against
forces that even Sherlock Holmes or Philip Marlowe
would struggle to overcome.

Sciascia’s novel is as much an indictment as a
narrative.  Yet the work, as it survives today, is
far more subdued than the original story as written
by the author. He needed to cut away much of his
early draft, not with the goal of improving the tale,
but because (in his word) of "the limits imposed by
the laws of the State and, more than by the laws, by
the susceptibilities of those whose duty it is to
enforce them."  The result, he explains, was that
"I was unable to write [
The Day of the Owl] with
that complete freedom with which every writer is

Yet even in its shortened and sanitized form,
The Day of the Owl remains a riveting book.  
The work carries with it the overtones of allegory,
and perhaps a more caustic and confrontational
approach might have given the work more force
when it was first published in 1961, but have
lessened the timeless appeal it now possesses.  
Sciascia would go on to write other crime stories,
both fictional and non-fictional (the latter
exemplified in his treatment of the 1978 Aldo
Moro kidnapping and murder), but in this early
work he set the model for many later efforts. And
not just his own. Decades after the publication
The Day of the Owl, a host of other authors would
find that, in constructing a postmodern approach
to the detective story, they were following in the
steps of this prickly predecessor, who saw his writing
as anything but experimental, and who pursued his
fictional adversaries with such intensity that one
might think they were real ones. And, indeed, they
no doubt were.

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
Postmodern Mystery
Postmodern Mystery is a web site
devoted to experimental, unconventional
and postmodern approaches to stories
of mystery and suspense

Further Clues:

Leonardo Sciascia's Mafia

The Mystery in Italy

NY Times obituary for Leonardo Sciascia
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