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Battling Evil and Its Long Reach(Boston Sunday Globe, August 8, 2004)

The Day of the Owl, by Leonardo Sciascia
New York Review Books, 124 pp., paperback, $12.95

Equal Danger, by Leonardo Sciascia
New York Review Books, 119 pp., paperback, $12.95

Is the world a reasonable place? Detective novels urge us to think so, writes Carlin Romano in his fascinating introduction to Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia's exquisite third novel, "Equal Danger" (1971), rereleased recently by New York Review Books along with his outstanding first novel, "The Day of the Owl" (1961). "Evidence accumulates, inferences mount, conclusions arrive on time," Romano says.

But this is Sicily, and these two enormously entertaining crime novels, with spot-on perfect translations, work not only as page-turning detective stories. They are serious, brilliant, literary studies of the "unchanging Sicilian blight," as Boston book critic George Scialabba, in his incisive foreword to "Owl," calls the Mafia and the torpor it spreads over the land. (Read each foreword after the book, so as not to spoil the surprises.)

Sciascia (1921--89) accomplishes more in each of these 120-page novels than most writers in thrice that many, illuminating with droll and increasingly dark humor characters he calls "individuals but also figures -- of age-old degradation, of folkish cunning, of refined corruption, of barbaric or civilized virtue."

When it appeared, "Owl" quickly became a classic, partly because it was the first book to portray an organization that virtually no one was willing to acknowledge existed. A "build-up" and a "Northern Italian prejudice," the Mafia is called by two Sicilians in one of the many wonderfully ominous, infuriating conversations by unnamed "eminences" who, as Scialabba says, form a "kind of chorus" to Captain Bellodi's investigation.

Which begins immediately: On Page 1 a local contractor is gunned down in the plaza of a Sicilian town, and Bellodi comes to investigate in a way very foreign and unnerving to the Sicilians. To an informer whom Bellodi questions, for example, "the law was utterly irrational, created on the spot by those in command."

Such are the penetrating portrayals of the various distinct and flawed characters populating the book, confirming that character is the chief ingredient of destiny. But Bellodi's character is one not just of honor but also decency--though not without his own flaws and doubts, as well as urges, born of frustration, to abuse his power. But he treats his suspects with kindness and consideration, surprising them--and lulling them into letting things slip. . . .

To read entire review, please visit The Boston Globe website or email the author (above right).