The Knight and Death: Three Novellas

Leonardo Sciascia

translated from the Italian
Harvill Press 1991

Daughter of Silence

Morris West

Fontana 1976 [1961]
A book review by Danny Yee © 1994
The Knight and Death is a collection of three stories. The first is about a dying Deputy who becomes involved in a murder investigation with sinister political overtones. It combines farcical elements reminiscent of Eco's Foucault's Pendulum with a powerful account of stoicism in the face of death. The second story is a straightforward detective story in classical form, with a clever double twist at the end. The final story is a courtroom drama which transcends the courtroom. Its subject is a judge presiding over a murder trial in fascist Italy, and it is his thoughts and private conversations which constitute the real drama, a debate about the nature of the law and the legal process, and about individual responsibility and the ethics of capital punishment. Sciascia's style in these stories is distinctive but engaging. His focus is very much on individual ratiocination, rather than on external events; so much so that none of his protagonists, whom we come to know so intimately, are ever even named.

Although it is also a work of legal fiction (with a dash of mystery) set in Italy, Morris West's novel Daughter of Silence is rather different. A young woman kills a man to avenge the death of her mother sixteen years ago during the war, and her case provides a lawyer with a weapon in his conflict with his wife and father-in-law. The most compelling components of the story are the mystery associated with the wartime events and the drama of the trial. Once these are resolved, the book loses its way completely; the continual psychological analysis of the main characters by one another is both implausible and shallow. Despite their more realistic presentation, none of West's characters are as "real" as Sciascia's, and though great things are claimed for them, none of them attain the heroic status of Sciascia's Deputy or "little judge". While the philosophical and legal issues raised in Daughter of Silence (free will versus determinism) are big ones, their treatment is cursory, and the result is not nearly as satisfying as that of Sciascia's much briefer final story.

Leonardo Sciascia has been added to my list of authors to look out for, and connoisseurs of quality detective fiction should definitely check him out. I am not likely to read more Morris West unless I get stuck in an airport without better options, though perhaps I would have been more impressed with Daughter of Silence if I hadn't read it immediately after The Knight and Death.

February 1994

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%T The Knight and Death
%S Three Novellas
%A Sciascia, Leonardo
%M Italian
%F Farrell, Joseph
%F Evans, Marie
%I Harvill Press
%D 1991 [1987,1988,1989]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0002712911
%P 215pp

%T Daughter of Silence
%A West, Morris
%I Fontana
%D 1976 [1961]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0006143164
%P 224pp