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by Donna Leon
Penguin, March 2007
336 pages
ISBN: 0143038060

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Donna Leon has a winner in her novels featuring Guido Brunetti, a police commissario in modern-day Venice. His wife Paola, a university professor, is more than a paper wife as in many a crime novel, but an interesting woman in her own right, and they have two intelligent teenage children. His job is in crime investigations, especially murder, in a local police questura, where he is assisted by a staff of loyal men.

Brunetti's superior is Vice-Questore Patta (isn't it interesting to see how the terms of ancient Rome are carried on in modern Italy?), who is a social-climbing, politics-conscious snob running neck-to-neck with the criminals to see which can give the commissario the greatest grief. Brunetti knows well his city, one of the world's most unique and delightful metropolitan areas.

Leon, an American with many years of living abroad, brews her knowledge of Venice expertly and in exquisite detail to accompany her novels every bit as much as a cup of cappucino brings flavor to a rich Venetian pastry. We eat Venetian food with Brunetti and his family, grieve with him (not overly much) on the inevitability of Venetian graft, cruise the canals with him, admire the stately, if decaying, palazzi with him, see with him what makes the leading Venetian crime figures as unique as is their city, and empathize with him as he struggles to keep his personal integrity amid a sea of corruption.

In THROUGH A GLASS, DARKLY (the title comes from the Bible: 1 Corinthians 13:1) the crime does not occur until halfway through the book, rather late by some standards. But we are so entertained by the life of the city than we can afford to wait for the inevitable death of a victim. In the meantime we are taken to the world-renown isola of Murano, which has specialized for centuries in the creation of some of the world's greatest glass works, both artistic and utilitarian. Leon has studied the glass-making process well, so we enjoy along with Brunetti an educational and most interesting tour of the steps and materials necessary for glass-blowing.

Brunetti doggedly keeps up a non-official investigation of two glass-making factories because he senses there is something wrong. In this he has to keep knowledge of his activities from Vice-Questore Patta, who approves of crime-solving mainly when he feels it can help his political career, and who doesn't like speculative probes. One factory owner is characterized as an irascible old man who carries on a personal vendetta against several of his employees, while the owner of the other factory combines a facility for being affable when he so desires with a miserly trait that would make the late comedian Jack Benny seem like a profligate spendthrift. A man who works for both owners is so obsessed by his personal guilt that he makes everyone he talks to, including Brunetti, feel uncomfortable.

Brunetti's unofficial investigation gets up the nose of both owners, and one of them turns out to have a direct channel to Vice-Questore Patta, who orders the commissario to cease and desist just when he is beginning to come up with some solid evidence of one crime, along with suspicion that murder is involved. My one small disappointment in the book is when the last laugh comes only at the very end whereas I like to savor the denouement and gloat a while when the hero comes out on top. CinCin!

Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, April 2007

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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