Setting: Venice, Italy.
Story: Commissario Brunetti is called to the scene when the body of a woman is discovered, having apparently dropped dead. But is it a natural death or something more?
“The dead woman had been turned on to her back, both arms at her sides: looking at her, Brunetti could not recapture the feeling conveyed to him by the first sight of the body. Her eyes were closed, her mouth open, her spirit fled. There could be no hope that a spirit still lingered near this body. One might choose to debate where it had gone, or even if it had ever existed, but there could be no question about the absence of life here.”
The Good Stuff: Brunetti is a wonderful creation; a caring, loving family man, weaving his way through a murky, often corrupt and dangerous world. And having created the character, and having put him on show for around twenty novels, Donna Leon works hard to keep up our interest in him. Brunetti cares, and it shows, and the reader wants to see the world through his eyes. The author’s flowing text is calm, cool and confident as she shows how Brunetti gets about his business, and gets the job done. The author doesn’t try and impress the reader with her vocabulary, but on the other hand is well able to add weight to an expression or description if thought necessary. The writing is restrained, delicate and delightful.
“Was this what happened, Brunetti wondered? Did we all reach a point in our lives where the death of other people didn’t matter, and the best we could be expected to produce was a kind of formulaic sadness, the generic form of grief instead of the real? What he observed in them was something more like disapproval than sadness. Shame on death for having shown his face at the window of our lives; shame on death for having reminded us that he was lurking outside and waiting for us.”
More Good Stuff: As much as Brunetti is the star of the book, Venice is the co-star. Donna Leon’s portrayal of the place draws the reader in as she shares her love of the place, warts and all. And many of the supporting cast are given a compassionate outing in the book. From the feisty interruption of the partner of a witness, to the coded communications of the police doctor, Donna Leon shows us real people. There’s an interview with a doctor living in a retirement home which is especially touching. To put it another way, the characters are interesting and populate an interesting story.
‘I want to know if there is any reason a person might have wanted to do her an injury,’ Brunetti said. Hearing himself say it, he felt a sudden chill, as though he had been asked to put a coin in this man’s mouth to pay for his voyage to the other world, or worse, had given him some heavy burden to take with him.
Not So Good Stuff: There’s one bit of schmaltz that the unkind reader might grudge the author.