There are plenty of crime novels at home and abroad that function as social critiques for their nation/state/metropolitan setting. Crime fiction is a good stalking horse for social commentary, because much of what passes for social commentary in crime fiction focuses on injustice real or perceived: racism, gender and economic inequality, urban decay, social despair, etc. Some books are better than others at doing this. All could take a lesson from Leonardo Sciascia’s The Day of the Owl.
Less a murder mystery and more an examination on how political corruption and organized crime influence day-to-day life in Sicily circa 1960, The Day of the Owl features a wide cast of characters. The Inspector is at the front of it, a moralistic man dismayed by the politics of the era and how they impact the citizens of Sicily. But the story rotates from his point of view to side conversations with various political and mafia figures as they ruminate on what Inspector Bellodi is doing and how it impacts their plans. They deride the northerner Bellodi as much of what is wrong with Italy, Siciliy and policing in general, all while being sympathetic to Mussolini’s fascism (the ghost of which lingers over the novel) and those who protect their private kingdoms. Sciascia can’t make his point any clearer, yet these are not thin characters, rather they are real people who have an investment in what’s happening. Which raises the stakes more.
I got a good picture of what life was like at this time and the hopelessness of trying to reform a broken system. Like the poem that inspires the novel said: when the owlets fly away, we all meet at the same place of death.