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to each his own

17 august 2017

In To Each His Own (1966), Leonardo Sciascia made obvious what many writers of genre fiction had been doing, implicitly, for decades. He used a murder-mystery plot to draw the reader into a complex, nuanced exploration of his society (postwar Sicily). Literary, political, religious, and cultural observations complement the detective story; it's as much a novel about gender as it is about murder. Yet To Each His Own never gets talky or programmatic. It shows rather than tells, it has energy and drive, and the mystery plot is skillfully and wryly contrived. I am not sure I fully "got" a lot of the ideas in the book, even from Adrienne Foulke's powerful translation, but I sure had a delightful and thought-provoking day reading it.

That plot is kicked off by an anonymous letter, warning the pharmacist of a Sicilian town that he will die for unspecified wrongdoing. Word of the letter spreads quickly. Everyone, including the pharmacist, figures that it's a joke. Jealousy over the pharmacist's hunting prowess is the suspected motive. All goes swimmingly for a chapter or two until both the pharmacist and his hunting buddy, a local physician, are found shot dead in the field, their dogs running loose.

Had the pharmacist really done something wrong? He seems to have filled orders for an unescorted woman, a few times, and gender norms in Sciascia's Sicily being what they are, that seems to satisfy most people's search for a motive for murder. But one mild-mannered literature teacher named Laurana isn't satisified. He's noticed that the anonymous letter, assembled out of cut-up newspaper bits as is standard, must have come from the Vatican newspaper, the Osservatore Romano. It doesn't take much private-eye work to trace the few people in town who take that paper. Could it be that the doctor, not the chemist, was the real target? Could it be that one of the local movers and shakers is too closely involved with the doctor's lovely widow? Could Laurana's crush on said widow be clouding his investigative judgment?

The ending is sharp and rueful, a twist you see before the characters do, which is difficult for a writer to bring off but always satisfying. Meanwhile, we hear about fascists and communists, Dante, Manzoni, and Pirandello, honor and revenge, the long reach of the Church via extended family networks, the political significance of being apolitical, organized crime, corruption, and overbearing Sicilian mothers. Sciascia's fiction hovers on a knife-edge; it is topical without being realistic, sensational without being implausible, philosophical without being talky. I have to read more of his books.

Sciascia, Leonardo. To Each His Own. [A ciascuno il suo, 1966.] Translated by Adrienne Foulke; first published in English as A Man's Blessing, 1968. New York: New York Review Books, 2000. PQ 4879 .C54A61313