The bodies of Manno and Roscio are found lying in a field, shot to death at close range. The victims had been out hunting that day; their game is now spilled out on the ground. The clues are sparse: Practically none exist save for a Branca cigar stub found near the bodies.
Several days before the murder, Manno had received a threatening letter, pasted together with words from a newspaper. People naturally assume that the crime is one of passion and speculate that Manno either seduced a girl or had an extramarital affair. It is unfortunate that his hunting companion Roscio was also killed; he simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The police make a full investigation, gather a list of suspects, and even film everybody that attends the victims’ funerals; but ultimately, they give up.
Yet the crime intrigues Paolo Laurana, a high-school teacher, who embarks on his own investigation, fueled by intellectual curiosity. Laurana has little desire to bring the guilty parties to trial, much less denounce them to the police: “Laurana had a kind of obscure pride which made him decisively reject the idea that just punishment should be administered to the guilty one through any intervention of his.” Laurana deduces that the printed words pasted on the anonymous letter had been clipped from the Vatican newspaper, L’osservatore Romano, and he discovers that only two people in town receive subscriptions to the publication. Both are churchmen: one a dean, the other a rector. Since many others had access to these editions or could have obtained copies elsewhere, however, the clue, although interesting, leads to a dead end.
Hoping to obtain a suggestive reaction, Laurana reveals what he has discovered at an informal gathering at a local men’s club that he frequents, but all that his announcement does is to alert the unknown guilty party to Laurana’s activities. Laurana continues his investigation. He is convinced that the person who arranged the killing was somebody well-known to one of the victims, because hunters usually keep the place where they are planning to go hunting secret, especially on the opening day of the season. The murderer was therefore a friend, and a nonhunting friend at that.
The next important bit of information comes to Laurana by chance. The following month, he happens to be in Palermo supervising school examinations when he runs into an old school friend, a Communist legislator, who tells him about a visit he received from Roscio several weeks before the murders. Roscio had wanted to find out if the politician would officially denounce, on the floor of the Parliament and in his party’s newspapers, a prominent person from his village, one who “made men, unmade them, stole, bribed, swindled.” From this conversation, Laurana deduces that the assassination of Manno was merely a smoke screen for the real target. In a subsequent conversation with the rector of the church of Sant’Anna, he discovers that the man who most fits Roscio’s description is Rosello, the lawyer. The possibility is confirmed when, again by chance, Laurana runs into Rosello outside the Palace of Justice in the company of a politician and a rather suspicious-looking character who smokes Branca cigars, the brand discovered at the scene of the crime. Laurana investigates the identity of the stranger and finds that he is a professional hit man named Ragana.
Laurana no longer doubts the identity of the guilty man, but he is still unsure of the motive. Most plausibly, it seems that Rosello and his victim’s wife are lovers, not merely cousins, and that her...
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husband’s death would clear the way for a marriage to reunite the family fortunes. Still, Laurana cannot bring himself to believe that such an attractive woman as Luisa could be part of such a horrendous scheme. With great relief, he welcomes her confidence, which is made in the course of a supposedly chance encounter on the bus going to Agrigento, that she also has suspicions of Rosello and believes that he played a part in killing her husband. Luisa tells Laurana that she wants to meet him secretly to discuss what they should do, and they arrange to meet in Agrigento at the Cafe Romeris, an out-of-the-way restaurant.
Laurana arrives early, but Roscio’s widow never appears. Finally, after more than two hours of fruitless waiting, he leaves in order to catch the last train back to his village. On the way to the station, a car driven by somebody he recognizes from his village offers him a ride. It is a set up, and Laurana is killed. His body is thrown down an abandoned sulfur mine, halfway between the county seat and his town.
After the customary year of mourning, Luisa announces her betrothal to Rosello. The arrangement merely confirms the suspicions of the town about Rosello’s role in the murder. These villagers already knew what Laurana had merely suspected, that Rosello and Luisa had been having an affair and that Roscio had caught them in bed together. In addition, they had been informed that Roscio had threatened to make public incriminating evidence of Rosello’s illegal activities. The outraged husband had also delivered an ultimatum that Rosello should leave the village and never return. Laurana’s mysterious disappearance did not surprise them either, because he obviously did not know enough to keep silent. He was clearly a fool.