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The Last Pill He’ll Ever Take

PROCEDURA By Salvatore Mannuzzu. Translated by John Shepley. 227 pp. New York: Villard Books. $20.

ONE morning, in the cafe of a Sardinian courthouse, Judge Valerio Garau drops dead after swallowing a pill while bantering with his mistress — herself a judge and the wife of another. Given the web of personal and professional relations tying the apparent murder victim to all the judges in the district, the investigation lands on the desk of the only outsider available, the unnamed narrator of “Procedura,” a magistrate transferred there in the wake of his own professional disgrace.

The author of this judicial detective story, Salvatore Mannuzzu — himself a former Sardinian magistrate — is working on familiar terrain, to which he brings both realistic atmosphere and a subtle literary touch. As the investigation proceeds, we are drawn into the increasingly complex world of Judge Valerio Garau; an enormously appealing man with money, charm and wit, he also had a tragic family history and a reckless appetite for all the good things in life. As the narrator follows the judicial “procedure,” we meet an intriguing gallery of possible suspects: the jealous ex-wife and the equally jealous mistress; the mistress’s seemingly resigned husband; the victim’s uncle, an embittered old cleric; Garau’s secret homosexual lover; a photographer cousin who deals in clandestine archeological objects.

Mr. Mannuzzu describes a world of extreme ambiguity and deftly solves the mystery while leaving it unclear whether the murder was fully intentional. Yet “Procedura,” which won Italy’s Viareggio Prize in 1989, is more than a police procedural. Although it is elegantly written (and fluidly translated by John Shepley), the novel does not live up to all its literary ambitions. The author seems to want to say something about the aimless nature of the search for truth, about the time and place in which the story is set. As Mr. Mannuzzu explains in an afterword, the narrator does not pursue his investigation, it just moves forward, demonstrating “procedure as a means without an end.” Mr. Mannuzzu also places the events against the background of the 1978 kidnapping of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro, but never makes anything of the connection.

“Procedura” invariably invites comparison with the work of Italy’s master of the provincial detective story, the Sicilian novelist Leonardo Sciascia. Although Sciascia’s stories of unsolved Mafia crimes are perfect metaphors for the mysteries at the heart of Sicilian and Italian political life, the horizons of “Procedura” are narrower: we never really get beyond the involving but incestuously closed world of Valerio Garau. But the comparison with Sciascia may be unfair. In his afterword, Mr. Mannuzzu calls his novel an unintentional parody of Mozart and Da Ponte’s “Don Giovanni,” and perhaps on this level — as an investigation into the mysterious death of a modern Don Giovanni — the book can be best read and enjoyed.

– October 17, 1993

As published in The New York Times

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