A Whiff of Sulphur

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There were no children’s books in my parents’ house. Between the ages of 5 and 10, the works of E. Philips Oppenheim, Leslie Charteris, Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace, Francis Gerard and Sapper, published by the Thriller Book Club to which my father had subscribed before the war, were the only full-length books I read. This has had the effect of making the thriller genre tiresome and puerile for me as an adult, though I do find the odd Carl Hiaasen diverting. Only Michael Dibdin, of modern British thriller writers, has provided sustaining nourishment.

So when an Italian friend recommended a Sicilian writer of detective fiction called Leonardo Sciascia (and pronounced, in the author’s island dialect, as sash-arr), I listened politely but unenthusiastically. He explained that I should begin with A Man’s Blessings, first published in English in 1968 (and in 1992 reissued under the title To Each His Own). In this book, I was told, I would discover the essence of the Sciascia style, and if it was not to my taste I would be saved reading anything else by him.

I confess I approached Sciascia with a sigh. Within a page this had developed into a purr of joy, and within the first chapter into a whoop of delight. As soon as I finished the book I began to reread it, and I have since read everything the man has written that has been translated into English.

Sciascia’s achievement is to defy Miss Prism’s notion of what fiction means (‘the good ended happily, and the bad unhappily’). Justice is a nonsense. We are shocked but grimly admit an awful reality when good people are killed and the murderers elude capture. We gasp as the innocent are hideously tricked, deceived, injured, left without redress. What is magical in this author is the feeling that he is powerless to prevent the unspeakable happening and this has a charm which both drives the narrative and makes it utterly realistic. The faint, acrid whiff of co

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About the contributor

Malcolm Gluck is embarrassed to admit he has choked the shelves with 36 books on wine but would rather have written a single great short story.

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