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by Donna Leon
Penguin, September 2006
336 pages
ISBN: 0143035827

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Donna Leon has fashioned another highly successful mystery featuring her very human police detective, Guido Brunetti in the exotic surroundings of Venice. We see Brunetti at work and also at home interacting with his university professor wife Paola and his daughter and son. It's difficult to say what makes these novels so interesting, although I might guess that the presentation of another way of life both different and similar to our own has something to do with it.

Brunetti is a down-to-earth policeman some of whose problems could be our own. He has to know how to handle his boss, how to get the best work out of his men, how to guide his children in a difficult world, and how to get influential people to cooperate with him. But although we're quite familiar in many respects with Western Europe, there is much in the life of a Venetian detective that is outside our everyday knowledge. The nuances controlling the political aspects of almost everything Brunetti does are not the same as those we know so well. For example, the position of a mistress in European society is different from such a position in our own.

In Brunetti's case, and this is depressingly true in some European countries, it's necessary to know which people on your own side are trustworthy. Giving sensitive information to a fellow policeman can endanger one's own life. There are age-old customs and mores that foster government officials being on the take, policemen to cooperate with the criminals they're investigating, and even superiors working against their own subordinates.

As Brunetti reflects: "Trevisan's murder competed for (newspaper) attention with yet another senator and yet another bribe. Years have passed since Judge Di Pietro handed down the first formal accusation, and still villains ruled the land. All, or what seemed like all, of the major political figures who had ruled the country since Brunetti was a child had been named in accusation, named again on different charges, and had even begun to name one another, and yet not one of them had been tried and sentenced, though the coffers of the state had been sucked dry."

Yes, we have our crooked politicians here, but they seem different both quantitatively and qualitatively from the ones described by Leon in her novels, and we know from what we read in real-life newspapers that her charges are true.

We hear the following enlightening conversation between Brunetti and his wife: He says: "All we've ever been is lied to. By the government, the Church, the political parties, by industry and business and the military?" She asks: "And the police?" '"Yes," he agreed with no hesitation whatsoever. "And by the police." "But you want to stay with them?" she asked. He shrugged and poured some more grappa. She waited. Finally he said, "Someone's got to try." Paola leaned across the table and placed the palm of her hand against his cheek, tilting his face towards her. "If I ever try to lecture you about honour again, Guido, hit me with a bottle, all right?"'

Brunetti differs from your everyday American policeman. One night he's reading Thucydides's PELOPONNESIAN WAR, and a few nights later he's reading Procopius's SECRET HISTORY. But is he a wiser man? One day he uses his daughter to get information from a schoolmate who is the daughter of someone connected to several murders involving the white slavery racket. A few days later his daughter is inconsolably a psychological wreck. The schoolmate resented being used, and she gave Brunetti's daughter a video tape to watch. It was a snuff film made to be sold to Americans, and it was hideously, sickeningly graphic. It makes Brunetti all the more resolved to solve this case.

I read my first Donna Leon book, DEATH AT LA FENICE, some four years ago and have been a fan ever since. There is a stark realism in her books that, along with the European ambience, makes me feel they're a step or two above everyday routine mysteries. Leon, like the younger American writer of Spanish post-civil war mysteries, Rebecca Pawel, seems to be of a new breed.

Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, October 2006

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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