Adventures in Venice

I am a long term reader of Donna Leon’s excellent Commissario Brunetti series, set in Venice, but fell behind a bit. This was my binge reading effort to catch up. Glad I did it. These are (from left to right) numbers 27, 28, and 29 in the series. You can read them on their own, but if you are at all interested in intelligent crime fiction, I recommend starting with the first – Death at la Fenice.

  • The Temptation of Forgiveness: Brunetti is asked to do something about the son of a friend of his wife’s who may be using drugs. Some time later, the boy’s father is found unconscious at the foot of a bridge. The investigation goes in various directions and our daring detective discovers – again – that crime is sometimes driven by the purest of intentions.
  • Unto Us a Son is Given: Brunetti’s father-in-law tells him about a mutual friend who may be about to make a terrible mistake all for the sake of love. Cue one of Brunetti’s best tales, with several outstanding passages of writing delivering finely honed observations on love, life, and death. Outstanding in a field of high quality.
  • Trace Elements: Brunetti is called to the hospice to hear a dying woman talk about ‘bad money’ and her deceased husband. Once Brunetti checks and finds out the husband was a field worker for a company responsible for checking the cleanliness of the city’s water supply and that he died in a hit-and-run incident, his investigative juices are flowing freely. In this particular case, the apparent difference between justice and the operation of the Italian legal system are all too clearly on show.

Fun fact: the books in the series are worldwide bestsellers, translated into many foreign languages, but not Italian! Why?

From this interview:

Q: Have you been asked by the Italians to get them translated?

Leon: Yes, all of the Italian publishers would kill to have them. I don’t want to be famous. I am spotted on the street by German, Austrian, French, Danish, everything… at least 3 or 4 time a day, and it’s always very nice and always very respectful; but I don’t like it. And the people in my neighborhood know that I am the American who lives opposite Nando and above Angelo Costantini and it would just change the tenor of my life. The unfortunate thing is that it has somehow percolated into the Italian Press that I am afraid to have my books published because the Italians may be offended by what I say about Italy. But, I am not afraid, if people don’t like the books, read another book, don’t read it, don’t finish it, give it somebody, throw it away.

Earthly Remains – Donna Leon

A fine addition to the Commissario Guido Brunetti series, being an adventure built around our hero’s partially enforced break from the Venetian Questura, on one of the islands in the laguna. With his contacts, accommodation is available, complete with caretaker, one Davide Casati. Brunetti bonds with Casati, and becomes a witness to the man’s environmental concerns.

What happens next is that Brunetti reverts to his role as a policeman, investigating the disappearance of his new found friend after a terrible storm.

There are secrets to be unearthed, and much disruption to be introduced into the lives of some who thought they were safe and secure from the forces of law and order. Brunetti digs away until he gets, inevitably, to the shocking truth.

As usual, the book is packed with the details of life in that part of the world that make the backdrop as much of a character as Brunetti. The supporting characters are generally enough to get the action moving, though Casati is a wee bit more roundly presented.

The plot is easy enough to unravel, but for best entertainment it is best to let the author tell it in her own way, with a smooth, peaceful narrative that holds back the righteous anger deserved of the baddies. The journey, with Leon, is beautifully presented, restrained, and ever thought provoking.

Although there are many books in the series, you can read this on its own. But, if you want my recommendation, start with the first – Death at La Fenice – and continue in order. You won’t regret it.

The Waters of Eternal Youth – Donna Leon

Commissario Brunetti’s wife’s family are part of Venetian high society. So it is not unusual that our hero occasionally finds himself forced to attend social events in which he has little interest. But, ever the gentleman, he participates with apparent willingness, an easy smile, and constant inward reflection. Following on from one such society dinner, his hostess – Contessa Lando-Continui, a friend of his mother-in-law – asks for his help. In her advancing years, the Contessa is increasingly troubled by the sad state of her granddaughter, Manuela. The girl was rescued from drowning, but suffered severe brain damage and lives out her life like a young child, the eternal youth of the book’s title. She cannot remember what happened. But the Contessa believes there must be an explanation, and wants Brunetti to get to the bottom of it.

Opening up an old case with no good reason is typically challenging fare for Brunetti, and it is a challenge he rises to, using his long experience of the system, and his deep understanding of how his boss thinks. Brunetti starts investigating, recruiting a sympathetic fellow policewoman to help him connect to Manuela, thus beginning and developing a friendship that assists the police to slowly make some progress.

While this is ongoing, the backdrop of modern Venice, with all its corruption, cronyism, and peculiarities, are portrayed as lovingly as the central character is. Brunetti’s family are also neatly sketched stars in their own right, offering a clear contrast to the world around them.

This is a fine, gentle, yet powerful book that shows yet again one of the greatest fictional detectives in all his glory.

By its Cover – Donna Leon

The book tells us of the continuing experiences of Commissario Brunetti, the wise Venetian policeman who weaves his way through the maze of politics, corruption, and other crime that awaits his every step. Yet he remains a kind, gentle – if occasionally abrupt – soul, often ruminating on spiritual matters with the perspective of a cynic, but a need to believe in happy endings. It isn’t always like that.

This time around, the story starts with the discovery of thefts of valuable books from one of the city’s libraries, before turning violent. Slowly, but surely, Brunetti gets to the bottom of things. On the way, we are treated to the exquisitely rendered Venetian backdrop, sharp observations on family and the world at large, and the human condition, by a writer at the top of her form.

This is a compact, evenly paced, well written piece of crime fiction that has the unmistakable seal of quality: I was so sad to get to the end. More, please!

The Golden Egg – Donna Leon

This is (apparently) the 22nd Commissario Brunetti novel, set in Venice and featuring the mercurial policeman, his family, his colleagues in the police force, and the city itself, all as characters supporting the flow of the story.

The plot in this book is narrow, intriguing, but less than inspiring a page turner. A deaf and mute man, possibly retarded, commits suicide. It’s all open and shut, but Commissario Brunetti is stirred into action by a combination of curiosity and collective guilt because he, like everyone else, saw the victim in difficult circumstances, but did nothing for him.

The layers of society in Venice, the tentacles of favors, power, and influence, and the human condition, are all beautifully displayed by the author. However, while the writing is exquisite, it lacks a certain bite. It’s like being at a fine Italian restaurant, tasting superb dishes but being unable to sample a fine wine with the meal. Perhaps another way of describing it is that it seemed as if the author was on auto-pilot. A fine auto-pilot, but nevertheless missing something. Perhaps a more adventurous plot might have been better, or maybe allowing some of the subsidiary and supporting characters a prolonged appearance in the limelight. There are plenty of interesting characters in Commissario Brunetti’s world, and it would have been good to spend more time with some of them.

It’s very like the other books in that the whole atmosphere is believable and engrossing. But the rather flat plot was disappointing. I would stress: it is beautifully written, and Commissario Brunetti remains a fine fellow to follow. (His perspective is humane, kind, caring, and realistic. There is a nicely weighted element of pathos in his musings about everything he sees.) But in this particular outing, he needed some support.

Mildly dsappointing.

The Jewels of Paradise – Donna Leon

In a word: dull.

In another word: disappointing.

In a paragraph: one of my favorite authors cast asides her top crime character – Commisario Brunetti – to show off her impressive knowledge of Venice and baroque music with different players. The plot’s a stinker, the characters are fit for cereal packets only, and the pace is so slow, it was a real struggle at times to keep going. Fine language and a great backdrop do not rescue this.  Awful.

Score: 4/10.