Most mysteries follow one of two formulas. The first is the Sherlock Holmes model, where a (typically idiosyncratic) detective solves the mystery. Details may change – Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House on the TV show House solves medical mysteries, the heroine of many Agatha Christie novels, Miss Marple, is a totally different kind of protagonist than Holmes, and J.K. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike has a military background – but really, these seemingly different characters are all brilliant, all outside the law, and in addition to solving mysteries, tend to have adventures along the way (although House’s adventures tend to be fueled by Vicodin). The second formula is the institutional, or Law and Order model, where a group, usually official in some capacity, solves the crime. Yet even here, stories in this model tend to follow the same pattern as the first.
I mention all this because I want to make it clear how much I admire Leonardo Sciascia’s To Each His Own, which manages to be a different kind of mystery entirely.
I’m tempted to call it an anti-mystery novel, since it undermines so many familiar tropes. The hero, an impressively average literature professor named Laurana, is no genius like Holmes, House, Marple, Strike, or even as capable as the comparatively normal Law and Order characters. He isn’t He only begins investigating a double murder in his town out of curiosity, as if it were a puzzle to test his ingenuity against. The murders themselves are striking, as well, in their seeming randomness – a pharmacist everyone likes receives a threatening letter and, the next day, is found dead, along with a hunting partner who apparently had the bad fortune of being around the pharmacist at the wrong time.
But this is no satire of the genre. To Each His Own does have a mystery at its heart, which Laurana almost accidentally manages to piece together, and what started as a harmless intellectual exercise suddenly becomes deathly serious. The turning point comes when Laurana comes face to face with a character who – to avoid spoilers – I’ll simply say lives in a world where double homicides are routine.
Sciascia’s novel is fascinating for a number of reasons, but perhaps above all because the question isn’t so much what happened as what do the people in charge want to have happened. Another one of his novels, Equal Danger, involves a political murder and the investigation is stymied multiple times because the higher-ups concoct a narrative that suits their purposes and they don’t appreciate the detective’s attempts to learn the truth. To Each His Own isn’t political so much as cultural, touching on the mafia, how some criminals are untouchable (as one character claims), and how insoluble most mysteries are. Many questions are answered by the end of the novel, but not all of them, and the revelations about who knew what when makes the very question of who is guilty a mystery itself. As for Laurana, he ends up being the real victim, a man who was never really a threat yet still managed to involve himself in a story that was too big for him from the start.
Sciascia shows that not every mystery has to be the same, that you can experiment with the very notion of what it means to solve a mystery when the truth isn’t always what someone, or anyone, wants.
And the best part is, if you enjoy To Each His Own, he’s got plenty of other works, each complicating the mystery novels in unique ways to create not an anti-mystery, but a meta-mystery.
So go read it. Now.