In the period following the defeat of Italy in the Second World War, a young writer began gathering material for crime stories that would challenge another sinister force that would dominate the country. Into the 1960s, Leonardo Sciascia’s novels would expose the power of the Sicilian Mafia. The Mafia had become deeply entrenched in the country in the post-war period, during the occupation by US forces. Sciascia’s 1961 novel, The Day of the Owl, told the story of a detective’s battle to solve the murder of a local businessman. At every turn, his investigations are hampered by murky Mafia forces. It is a novel that reveals how deeply the Mafia has permeated Sicilian society, not just economically but also culturally, and how its reign of terror has changed the behaviour of the islanders. The social cohesion of communities is punctured by the fear to speak freely and the sense of distrust that weighs on them all.
The novel begins with a murder by the Mafia. Nobody has seen or heard anything, a denial emblematic of the corrosion in civic values in Sicily. Nobody on the bus saw a thing. It was a hell of a job to find out who was on the bus. The passengers said that the windows were so steamy that they looked like frosted glass. Maybe true.
Sciascia didn’t see himself as just a crime writer. He was a social commentator, but much more than Gadda, he was also deeply alive to the sense of Sicily, its landscape and its culture. His writing reflected that beautifully. Dawn was infusing the countryside. It seemed to rise from the tender green wheat, from the rocks and dripping trees that mount imperceptibly towards a blank sky. The Gramole, incongruous in green uplands, look like a huge black whole sponge soaking up the light flooding the landscape.
Like Gadda, Sciascia chose to reject the conventional model of detective fiction. Instead, his detective, Inspector Bellodi, is forced to confront the corruption that surrounds him. He is on a quest for knowledge very nearly like a spiritual warrior; he learns the limits of what he can do and, more importantly, what he can’t; even when he finds the criminal, he finds no closure. Readers of the crime genre crave a final resolution, but Sciascia, like the other great Italian writers, refuses to grant them that grace.
By the late 1960s, Sciascia began to inject political intrigue into his stories, mirroring the collusion of politics and terrorism and its bane upon Italian society. This was an era that came to be known as the Years of Lead. A bag containing explosives placed in a central piazza in Milan by neo-fascists in 1969 was the start of this era, a decade of carnage by both right and left wing terrorists. Sciascia took on politics, and in 1971, in Equal Danger, wrote about the murder, one by one, of some of the country’s top judges. In the book is a plot to blame the murders on left-wing extremists. You might think that such a plot would reveal Sciascia a leftist himself, but instead you would find nuance as Sciascia takes on both sides, following the delicate undulations of the Italian everyman’s political opinion.
In the Years of Lead, 374 Italians were killed and 1,170 wounded, in a series of brutal attacks that tore the country apart. At the time, people could scarcely imagine whether the criminals were from within the state or without. In 1978 came the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, a former Prime Minister of the country. Was he killed by the Marxist militant group, the Red Brigades, or was he killed by sinister forces in the government? The popular speculations that troubled Italians about who were the culprits prompted Sciascia to conduct his own researches, which he published in The Moro Affair. He drew the reader’s attention to the discrepancies in the official version of events. It all contributed to an atmosphere of political turmoil in which there were frequent miscarriages of justice.
[From BBC Four’s Italian Noir – The Story of Italian Crime Fiction]