GREAT CRIME NOVELS
Recommended by Cormac Millar
3. TO EACH HIS OWN by Leonardo Sciascia (1966)
In Sicily more than in most places, given the power of the Mafia, the weight of social and religious tradition, and the peculiar political history of the Italian state, there is an unusally close linkage between crime, politics and cultural identity. Leonardo Sciascia (1921-1989) explored this linkage in a set of brilliantly constructed crime novels, as well as in essays, short stories, historical novels and documentary works. Strict adherence to the conventions of the mystery genre produced some of his most effective social critiques, and books such as The Day of the Owl (1961), To Each His Own (1966) and A Straightforward Story (1989) can also be enjoyed as sheer entertainment.
To Each His Own begins with the shooting of a pharmacist and his hunting companion, for seemingly domestic reasons. The pharmacist had received an anonymous letter, with words cut from newspaper pages, warning him of retribution for some unspecified sin, probably adultery. But everyone in the small town senses the real reason behind the shooting -- everyone, that is, except for the naively rational detective, the schoolteacher Mr Laurana. This man cleverly (i.e. stupidly) points out that the newspaper used for the anonymous threat was the Vatican publication, Osservatore Romano, with its distinctive motto Unicuique Suum (To Each His Own) on the masthead. Very few people in a small town in Sicily would take that newspaper. Laurana follows up this and other clues with growing excitement and unexpected consequences. There are wonderfully credible villains and personal betrayals, but the big achievement of the book is to portray a whole society which accepts, condones and even fosters the most appalling crimes with a sense of inevitability rivalling the chorus in a Greek tragedy.
To Each His Own, translated by Adrienne Foulke, has recently been reissued by New York Review Books in its NYRB Classics, along with other works by the same author. The NYRB web site quotes what Gore Vidal said of Sciascia: "What is the mafia mentality? What is the mafia? What is Sicily? When it comes to the exploration of this particular hell, Leonardo Sciascia is the perfect Virgil."
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