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Donna Leon

Through a Glass, Darkly

Fans of Donna Leon will not be disappointed by her latest Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery, Through a Glass, Darkly - the fifteenth in the series. Paola Brunetti is still reading English literature, cooking boffo meals, and sparring lovingly with her husband. Signorina Elettra is still producing slim dossiers of useful information into the provenance of which the Commissario is far too wise to inquire. It's time to spread out the map of Venice (or Venedig, as my Hallwag City Map map puts it) and follow Brunetti from the Questura, in the Campo San Lorenzo, to Murano, where there's trouble in one of the vetrerie.

It's also an occasion for watching a very gifted writer give distinctive shape to the police procedural. There is always enough crime-scene passagework to keep one's sense of dark deeds and mystery roused, but the core of the Brunetti books is the ballet that bureaucracy forces the Commissario to dance. That bureaucracy is embodied by Brunetti's superior, Vice-Questore Patta, a Sicilian opportunist who "renounced every aspect of his work save for the power and the perks of office." When Patta steps on an investigation that Brunetti proposes, the Commissario simply works around the prohibition; thanks to good relations with colleagues and subordinates (such as the police pilot, Paolo Foa), Brunetti can get things done notwithstanding the red tape. The real mystery is never who killed whom, but rather how Brunetti will manage to complete his investigation.

Guido Bruno is the sort of attractive detective who would be played by Giancarlo Giannini (see My House in Umbria). He has seen much of the world without spending much time outside of the Veneto, one of the oldest centers of civilization in the West and still quite peculiar. From artisanal stock himself - his father was a servente at one of the Murano fornaci - he is married to the daughter of a count, and he conducts himself with truly formidable diplomacy. His ability to lose himself in the details - and the details here are not just fingerprints and shell casings but scraps of remembered lore about the Commissario's fellow Venetians - that keeps him going; without it, he would be too pessimistic to get out of bed in the morning. The facts of the crime at hand are scattered, inconclusive phenomena; it is Brunetti's knowledge of the elements that make up Venice that solves the case. Most of the clues are in Brunetti's head at the outset. I am never quite certain whether we would hit it off in person. But I'm very fond of Brunetti in fiction. (June 2006)

Suffer the Little Children

In Suffer the Little Children, Donna Leon tries out something new: nobody dies. The latest Guido Brunetti mystery focuses on the other end of life, in the form of an illegal-adoption racket. Even that de-materializes as the plot unfolds. The book is nevertheless haunted by the terrible thing that happens in the second chapter, an idyll that ends in nightmare.

While the good Commissario tries to get to the bottom of an unnecessarily violent Carabinieri raid, Inspector Vianelli (Brunetti's most trusted subordinate) looks into a reimbursement scam involving three doctors and a pharmacist. The question in the latter case is, which pharmacist? When the two investigations converge, it is not with the neat satisfaction of an elegantly-turned plot, but with a contingent messiness. This is in keeping with Ms Leon's true subject, everyday life in Venice.

In the Seventeenth Century, a plague killed over six hundred thousand Venetians. Today, the city is home to only sixty thousand souls. Venice is almost a small town. But it is unlike any other small town in the world, of course; in fact, it's unlike anywhere else. At one point early on, Brunetti and the lovely Signorina Elettra visit a fertility clinic in Verona. The taxi ride from the station scares the bejesus out of the Commissario: he's not used to being in a car.

Needless to say, Brunetti and Elettra are not visiting the clinic in propria persona. A certain amount of play-acting is involved, and Elettra must cry floods of tears. Later, on the train, Brunetti asks her how she managed it. She tells him that she thought of the masegni - the old paving stones of Venice. Why did this make her cry? "Because I'm Venetian."

"During the repaving of the streets," she continued, preventing him from completing the thought. "When they raised the sidewalks against acqua alta," she added, rasing her eyebrows in silent comment on the folly of that attempt. "They dug up all the masegni, the ones that had been there for centuries." Hearing her, he remembered the months head spent watching the workmen, as campi and calle were torn up, pipes and phone wires installed or renewed, then everything put back again.

"And what did they replace them with?" she asked. Brunetti tried never to encourage the asking of rhetorical questions by dignifying them with an answer, so he remained silent.

"They replaced them with machine-cut, perfectly rectangular stone, every one a living example of just how perfect four right angles can be."

Brunetti remembered now being struck by how well the new stones did fit together, unlike the old ones with their rough edges and irregular surfaces.

"And where did the old one go, I wonder?" she asked, raising her right index finger in the air in a ritual gesture of interrogation. When Brunetti still made no answer, she said, "Friends of mine saw them, stacked up neatly in a field in Marghera." She smiled, and went on, "carefully bound in wire, as if ready for shipment to somewhere else. They even photographed them. And there has been talk of a piazza somewhere in Japan where they were used.

Brunetti made no attempt to disguise his confusion. "Japan?" he asked.

"That's just talk, sir," she said. "Since I haven't seen them myself, only the photographs, I suppose all of this could be nothing more than urban myth. And there's no proof, well, no proof aside from the fact that they were there, thousands of them, century-old stones, when the work started, and now most of them aren't there. So unless they decided to turn themselves into lemmings and jump into the laguna one night when no one was watching, someone took them and didn't bring them back."

Brunetti was busy calculating the sheer volume of stone. There would have been boatloads, truckfuls, whole acres of the things. Too many of them to hide, enormously expensive to transport, how could anyone organize such a thing? And to what purpose?

Almost as if he had posed the question out loud, she said, "To see them, Commissario. To dig them up and take them away at the city's expense - hand-cut, centuries-old volcanic rock paving stones - and sell them. That's why." He thought she had finished but she added, "Even the French and the Austrians, when they invaded - and God knows they stripped us clean - at least they left us the paving stones. Just thinking about it is enough to make me weep."

As it would, Brunetti realized, any Venetian.

Unfortunately, we don't see much of Signorina Elettra after the adventure in Verona. She plays an important and characteristic role in finding a computer wizard to decipher a broken hard drive, but because the Commissario can hardly use a mouse this problem is handled by Vianello. On a brighter note, the signorina's boss, Vice-Questore Patta, is also too busy to show up very often.

I thought that the book ended prematurely. There is plenty of occasion in the dénouement for Brunetti to agonize over the responsibility that he might have had for planting suspicions in the mind of a highly-regarded but wounded pediatrician, and the twinned responsibility to share subsequently-gathered information with him. Brunetti's scruples are exquisite, as a rule. I waited for him to wince at the possibility that his questions, followed by his silence, might have inspired a brutal assault with acid, but he does not. The reason for this is, so far as I can make one out, must be that Ms Leon matches her concluding chapter to her first, and as a result the former is also the blank transcript of an official interview.

Suffer the Little Children is probably not a good choice for someone who hasn't already read one of the Commissario Brunetti books. I got the feeling that Ms Leon takes it for granted that her readers are familiar with her stock characters, because she never explained why Signorina Elettra is the go-to girl for the surreptitious (and illegal) securing of all kinds of records. But the sixteenth installment of the series adds its weight to the proposition that beneath their very entertaining surfaces, Ms Leon's books unfold a richly novelistic world. (April 2007)

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