Leonardo Sciascia was born in Sicily in 1912 and died there in 1989. He was one of the country’s leading writers (both a novelist and essayist), as well as a forthright political commentator. Sciascia was deeply concerned with the failings of the judicial system, corruption and the moral challenges facing Sicily and Italy, and his novels tap into these themes. Earlier this year, Granta reissued a series of Leonardo Sciascia’s books in smart, new covers, and having enjoyed The Day of the Owl, I couldn’t resist buying a couple of the new editions.
Equal Danger opens with the discovery of the body of District Attorney Varga, shot dead while walking home one evening. At the time of his death, Varga had been in the middle of conducting the prosecution in a lengthy trial, and at first sight it appears that someone may have eliminated the DA with the aim of halting his case. Initial probes by the local police, however, lead to a dead end, and in an attempt to restore public faith, the Minister for National Security appoints inspector Rogas to the investigation. And it’s at this point that we start to gain a sense of the politics at play:
The Minister did not fail to communicate to Rogas, by way of a viaticum delivered by the High Commissioner of Police, the desire of both the President of the Supreme Court and himself that any shadow which might blemish the limpid reputation of the deceased Varga should be evaluated by Rogas in light of the discredit that would unjustly fall upon the entire judiciary; therefore, with the utmost caution, any such shadow was to be exorcised upon its first appearance. Should it loom up irresistibly, it was to be erased. But Rogas had principles, in a country where almost no one did. (pg 4, Granta Books)
Almost as soon as Rogas starts to probe the circumstances surrounding Varga’s demise, news of another death comes through; Judge Sanza has been found dead on a beach in Ales (about sixty miles away), killed by a bullet to the heart. Then, four days later, another official, Judge Azar, is wiped out. Sciascia has a terrific way with words, which I hope to illustrate by quoting his description of this unfortunate character:
Four days later, in Chiro, Judge Azar was felled: a sullen, reclusive man, who had spent the years from youth to death in terror of being infected by illness and emotions. Never had he shaken hands with a colleague or with a lawyer; when he could not avoid shaking hands because some newly arrived superior offered his own, Azar would suffer until he managed to slink behind a curtain or to some place where he, not seeing, believed himself unseen; taking out a tiny flask of alcohol, he would pour a generous amount (the only thing in which he was generous) over his bony hands, which were roped with veins and spotted like lichen-covered stones. (pg. 7)
During his investigation, Rogas discovers that Judge Azar had amassed a substantial fortune, the source of which remains a mystery. Our protagonist smells the whiff of corruption, but is quickly advised by his superiors (and those at the very top levels of state) ‘not to forage for gossip; Rogas should keep on the trail, if trail there was, of that crazy lunatic who for no reason whatever was going about murdering judges.’ (pg 8)
Rogas believes the crimes are connected in some way and wonders if someone is seeking revenge for a previous miscarriage of justice. Presently he learns that about ten years ago, Azar and Varga served together in the Criminal Court in Algo. No sooner does Rogas arrive in Algo than another body (that of Judge Rasto) is discovered, promptly followed by the felling of another Judge in a city far away from the other crimes.
Undeterred, Rogas continues to pursue his revenge hypothesis and homes in on three cases of particular interest. He eliminates two of the three leaving a prime suspect, a man convicted of attempted homicide, a crime involving poison, a dead cat and a pot of black rice. Having served five years, Rogan’s suspect, a pharmacist by the name of Cres, is now back living in Algo. Rogas places Cres’s home under surveillance, but the pharmacist gives Rogas’s colleagues the slip.
Meanwhile, another District Attorney is killed (this one in the capital city), and witnesses report seeing two people fleeing the scene of the crime. Consequently, those in the upper echelons of power believe revolutionaries and political activists are responsible for the murders, and Rogas finds himself transferred to the Political Section in order to ‘redeem himself and redeem the police force from evident error.’
From here, our Inspector finds himself drawn into a web of political entanglements involving several players. There’s the editor of Permanent Revolution (a magazine that has published articles attacking the administration of justice), the Minister for National Security and Mr. Amar, the leader of the International Revolutionary Party (an opposition movement). And this section of the narrative delivers further insights into the nature of political environment at large – here’s The Minister talking to Rogas and the Chief of the Political Section:
But, you see, this country hasn’t reached the point yet of despising Mr. Amar’s party as much as it despises mine. And in our system, contempt is what puts the seal of approval on power. Mr. Amar’s people are doing their level best to deserve it, and with time they will. And once they’ve got it, they will know what to do to legitimize it. Because, while the system allows us to come to power via contempt, it is iniquity, the practice of iniquity, that legitimizes it. We – those of us in my party who succeed each other in ministerial posts – we are blandly iniquitous. (pg.72)
At the end of this scene, the Chief of the Political Section asks Rogas for his take on the Minister’s remarks. Rogas replies:
“I have no opinions. If I did, I’d change jobs. I’ve only got principles. What about you?”
“I’ve got neither opinions nor principles.” (pg. 73)
As Rogas tries to find a way forward, he meets with the President of the Supreme Court, and the two men enter into a complex philosophical discussion on the nature of innocence, guilt and the administration of justice. What started as a murder mystery has by now morphed into something else altogether.
In a note at the end of the book, Sciascia describes Equal Danger as a fable set in an entirely imaginary country:
A country where ideas no longer circulate, where principles – still proclaimed, still acclaimed – are made a daily mockery, where ideologies are reduced to policies in name only, in a party-politics game in which only power for the sake of power counts.
Equal Danger is a very good novella. It comes in at just shy of 120 pages, but Sciascia makes every word count here; each sentence feels charged with meaning. It’s a very skilfully-written story, and the narrative becomes more nuanced, more philosophical as it develops.
If you’re looking for a crime novel with a classic plot resolution, one in which the detective gets his man, Equal Danger (and Sciascia in general) may not be for you. But if you’re interested in mysteries that explore deeper issues regarding moral values, corruption and social injustice, then Equal Danger is well worth a shot.
Equal Danger is published in the UK by Granta Books. Source: personal copy.