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 mysteries."
Reviewed 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 as-
signed 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 con-
tractor 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 example.

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 com-
plete freedom with which every writer is entitled."

Yet even in its shortened and sanitized form,
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 of
The Day of the Owl, a host of other
authors would find that, in constructing a post-
modern 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's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of the
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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