Open Doors and Three Novellas by Leonardo Sciascia (Shane's book 6, 2011)

To describe Leonardo Sciascia as a crime writer might be to do him a disservice. From the evidence of these stories at least, his concerns are more literary than those of a typical genre writer; he is more interested in examining the motives and desires of those committing and investigating crime than he is in detailing whodunnit and how. [amtap book:isbn=0679735615]

That said, to elevate Sciascia above the genre simply because he is more literary is probably to perpetuate the stereotype that genre writing cannot be literary writing. Of course if one defines 'genre fiction' to mean 'non-literary fiction', and many do, then it is obviously true that there can be no overlap between the two but such a definition could be just such an example of the lazy stereotype.Depending on your view, Sciascia either writes literary fiction about crime or crime fiction with literary preoccupations. In truth, it doesn't really matter which.

Though most of Sciascia's fiction was written in the Sixties and Seventies, after which he focused on essays, he returned to the crime genre towards the end of his life and wrote the four novellas in this volume.

The title story is set in Palermo under Mussolini and tells of a judge who has to decide whether to give a death sentence to a man accused of murdering three people, one of whom was an important local fascist. Though the man is unquestionably guilty, the judge does not want to impose the death penalty even though he knows that failing to do so would damage his career. Furthermore, a higher court would in all probability overrule his decision and sentence the man to death anyway. Thus his dilemma is irrelevant in practical terms but it is the moral question that Sciascia explores in fascinating depth: should you stick to what you believe is right even when doing so is pointless?

The second story, Death and the Knight, was written in 1988 - a year before Sciascia died - and deals with a terminally ill policeman who is caught in a murder investigation that is crippled by corruption. Sciascia's interest is in the detective, rather than the investigation.

A Straightforward Tale follows and it is indeed straightforward. A diplomat is found dead in his remote house but what appears to be a suicide does not make sense, leading a police Brigadier to dig further and expose a murder. Sciascia highlights the rivalry between the local police and the Carabinieri and leaves the ending somewhat open but this is still the most conventional story in the book.

The first two stories both contain lots of historical detail that is probably well known to Italians but which will not be obvious to foreign readers. Sciascia often delivers this detail in a style that feels better suited to an essay than a novella and this is particularly true in the final story, 1912+1. Here Sciascia examines a celebrated murder case from 1913 and proposes his own solution. This is more like a speculative essay than a novella and I found it the least effective story in the book, though perhaps a lack of historical knowledge played a part there.

All four novellas are preoccupied with injustice and corruption. There are no comfortable endings to be found. Though this is something that gives the stories a literary feel, it's also a fairly common feature of the Italian crime genre. Sciascia's writing, thoughtful and philosophical, transforms these themes into art.