In a small town in Sicily, a pharmacist receives an anonymous letter announcing his imminent death, "to avenge what you have done". He has nothing on his conscience and he and his friends conclude it must be a joke. Nevertheless, following a day shooting game, he and his companion fail to return home. A search finds them both dead, the pharmacist shot from behind, his friend - a doctor - from in front. One of the 11 dogs they had with them was also shot dead. The rest return to alert the town to the tragedy.
Apart from the letter, which was composed of words clipped from a newspaper pasted to form new sentences, the only clue seems to be the stub of a cigar, found at the murder site. Professor Laurana, a friend of both the pharmacist and the doctor, intrigued by some words seen on the back of the newspaper clippings, but failing to interest the investigating police marshal in them, sets out to do some sleuthing of his own. His investigations lead him, and us, to meet many fascinating personalities in a variety of interesting locations.
This is a highly literary detective novel, employing a vocabulary (ably brought to us by translator Adrienne Foulke) likely to flex parts of our own not exercised on a daily basis. Should we be so inclined, we can also follow-up some literary and artistic references with which we are unlikely to be wholly familiar. Leonardo Sciascia (pronounced Sash-arr), who took a notably jaundiced view of policemen, politicians, the church and other institutions in Italy, Sicily in particular, leads us to some interesting reflections on human nature, life and death. Highly recommended.