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The Day of the Owl – Leonardo Sciascia

Sposito had a baby face, but the brothers Colasberna and their associates were in holy terror of his presence, the terror of a merciless inquisition, of the black seed of the written word. ‘White soil, black seed. Beware the man who sows it. he never forgets,’ says the proverb.

All right, then, no flights of fancy. But Sicily is all a realm of fantasy and what can anyone do there without imaginations?

Salvatore Colasberna is unusual, but his end is not. He is an honest contractor in Sicily and on the opening page of The Day of the Owl he is gunned down while boarding the morning bus. The same day, a local man named Nicolosi disappears. Tips begin to pour into the police station about both crimes, most of which suggest that one or both were crimes of passion, with almost no indication that the two might be connected. The detective on the case, Captain Bellodi, is an outsider from Parma and newly appointed to Sicily and suspects that there is something more sinister at work. Bellodi is particularly suspicious of the mafia, much to the chagrin of his local subordinates and influential Sicilians in Rome, all of whom insist that the criminal organization doesn’t exist—-that it is conspiracy dreamt up by the malicious outsiders.

The Day of the Owl is, at its heart, a police procedural that follows Bellodi’s meticulous investigation into the two murders. He rejects the premise that either crime is the result of passion, and begins tracking down leads that might reveal that the two murders are connected by the mafia. He manages to track down the two killers and connect the murders and finds enough evidence to arrest a head of the mafia, but the suspects reject his accusation that this shadowy organization is strangling Sicily. The island runs on family relationships and friendships and nothing more sinister, they say.

For all that civilians stonewall and higher-ups put pressure on Bellodi, the actual investigation is straightforward and goes off without a hitch. The plot builds up to a cordial, climactic exchange between the captain and the arrested mafia boss Don Mariano Areno, who plays innocent and mocks Bellodi for seeing an all-powerful organization running Sicily. Areno respects Bellodi, and their tet a tete develops into a debate about how Sicily ought to operate. Despite himself, Bellodi finds himself in love with the insular, intransigent, and backward-looking island that resists assimilation into the modern world.

This particular climax further indicates what sort of story The Day of the Owl is. Although saddled with the trappings of a detective novel and bearing some of the same pacing, Sciascia’s book is more of a portrait of an unnamed Sicilian town and the operation of the mafia, as seen through the eyes of an outsider. Sciascia himself was a native Sicilian and vocal critic of the mafia throughout his life, and the character of Bellodi seems to take on his role as someone who loves he island and the people, but hates the corruption that pervades its society.

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I am going to read another of Sciascia’s novels in the near future, but next up I am probably going to read Dan Simmon’s The Fall of Hyperion.