books

Donna Leon

Books

Commissario Guido Brunetti: Death at La Fenice (1992), Death in a Strange Country (1993), Dressed for Death (usa) / The Anonymous Venetian (uk) (1994), Death and Judgment (usa) / A Venetian Reckoning (uk) (1995), Acqua Alta (1996), Quietly in Their Sleep (usa) / The Death of Faith (uk) (1997), A Noble Radiance (1998), Fatal Remedies (1999), Friends in High Places (2000), A Sea of Troubles (2001), Willful Behavior (2002), Uniform Justice (2003), Doctored Evidence (2004), Blood from a Stone (2005), Through a Glass, Darkly (2006), Suffer the Little Children (2007), The Girl of His Dreams (2008), About Face (2009), A Question of Belief (2010), Drawing Conclusions (2011), Beastly Things (2012), The Golden Egg (2013), By its Cover (2014), Falling in Love (2015), The Waters of Eternal Youth (2016), Earthly Remains (2017)

 

Commissario Guido Brunetti

 

Death at La Fenice (1992)

Guido Brunetti is vice-commissario of police in the Venice, and a good detective as well. When a world famous maestro is found dead in his dressing room, from what seems to be cyanide poisoning, Guido is immediately pressured to find the killer, lest Venice receive bad press.

Although I guessed the killer about halfway through, it didn’t take away any of my enjoyment from the story, because I’d still not figured out they why.

Guido is a very good detective who is also compassionate–something that you don’t always find in fictional police detectives. I enjoyed watching Guido’s impressions of different individuals change as he spent more time interviewing them. The other thing I liked was his relationship with his family and his wife’s family. Relationships that initially seemed cliched quickly turned into something more complex, as we see Guido’s opinion of those around him changing–and learn of their impressions of him.

Donna Leon does a very good job of building not just the mystery, but also the characters and the story. No one is quite as expected, and the story wandered in place I didn’t expect, but seemed reasonable after we went there.

About the only thing that struck me as strange was the attitude towards homosexuals held by certain characters in the story. I am not sure if this was due to the fact that the book was set more than 15 years ago, or because the attitudes in Italy are different from those in the US (I’d actually be very interested in learning which it was–but not curious enough that I’m going to do work and look it up.) And let me make it clear it was not the main characters that held these attitudes, but those attitudes did not seem to be seen as unusual, which was unusual for me.

I also loved the details about Venice, and how the city plays such a prominent part in the story. It’s another city I’ve love to visit, but I fear that by the time I ever get around to all the travel I’d like to do, the feel of so many cities will be gone.

If you like mysteries set in cities not your own, then I highly recommend Death at La Fenice. Good detective, good city, good story.
Rating: 8/10

Published by Grove Press

Re-read: July 2013

When I saw this on sale as an eBook deal of the day on Amazon, I snatched it up. I am slowly coming to prefer eBooks to paper books, and am always glad to get favorites in electronic format.

I first stumbled across Commissario Brunetti in 2008, when I was on a mystery reading kick. I fell in love with Brunetti and Venice and especially the food and the meals described. Not sure if it’s all books set in Italy, or just mysteries but in both this series and Andrea Camilleri‘s Inspector Montalbano series, food is as much of a character as the detectives and the places where they live.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that the mystery is shorted. Just that in this series Venice and food as major characters are much as Paola.

What I had forgotten though, are that Vianello and Signora Elettra don’t make an appearance in the first book. They are such a part of the Questura and Brunetti’s work to solve the mysteries it’s very odd for them to be missing.

As to the mystery, a famous conductor is found dead in his dressing room between the second and third acts–the cause of death is obvious: cyanide in his coffee. And as good a conductor as he was, he was also a very difficult man–one who it was rumored had ties to the Nazis during the second world war.

Although some elements of later mysteries (Vianello and Signora Elettra) aren’t here, Brunetti’s dry wit is already well-formed.

‘Is she pretty?’ Brunetti realized Patta must have found out about the difference in age between the dead man and his widow.

‘If you like tall blondes,’ Brunetti said.

‘Don’t you?’

‘My wife doesn’t permit me to, sir.’

Of course Paola and their children aren’t quite as well developed in this story as in later stories, but I see that mostly in that we have yet to see any of Paola’s flaws and quirks. But there’s nothing to dislike here.

But as I said, the city is as much a character as Brunetti. Take this description of a building Brunetti is visiting to interview a witness.

A single flight of stairs lay off to the right, and he began to climb, noting with pleasure the slight concavity that hundreds of years of use had hollowed out of each step. He liked the way the declivity forced him to walk up the centre of the staircase.

Living in such a young country, I only rarely get to see such things, so when I do, I’m always impressed by how the passage of time affects seemingly immutable objects (like stone or marble stairs).

Plus, the odd bits that amuse me.

Her joy pulled her to her feet, raised her hands towards heaven. ‘I feel myself reborn,’ she cried, whereupon, this being opera, she promptly collapsed and died.

Yeah, I don’t think I’ll ever get opera, myself.

So this was a lovely and enjoyable re-read, although it did make me slightly melancholy, as I remembered that Grandmom loved this series as well.
Rating: 8/10

Re-Read: October 2015

I love Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series. It’s set in Venice, Italy, and the place is a much a character as Brunetti, his family, and the other members of the Questura.

Like all street addresses in Venice, the one the American had given him was virtually meaningless in a city with only six different names for street addresses and a numbering system without plan or reason. The only way to find it was to get to the church and ask someone who lived in the neighbourhood.

More importantly, this book introduces us to Commisario Brunetti.

He was a surprisingly neat man: tie carefully knotted, hair shorter than was the fashion; even his ears lay close to his head, as if reluctant to call attention to themselves. His clothing marked him as Italian. The cadence of his speech announced that he was Venetian. His eyes were all policeman.

That may well be one of the only descriptions we get of him–I can’t think of another description of him, but I might just have glossed over it.

A world-renowned conductor has been murdered at La Fenice between acts on opening night, but like many artists, he’s managed to anger plenty of people, and his history in Germany during WWII doesn’t help.

(W)e all deserve to die, but no one should get to decide for us when that will be.

I love this series, and I love immersing myself in Brunetti’s Venice. That there is an interesting murder mystery is just a bonus.
Rating: 8/10

Death in a Strange Country (1993)

The second Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery (how I managed to read the third book instead of the second in two different series within a week is beyond me) finds Guido awakened to come down to a canal as a body was found in the water. The stab wound that is discovered rules out an accident, and as it becomes quickly apparent that the man was not an Italian but was instead an American, things become even more confusing–and dangerous.

The more time I spend reading about Commissario Guido Brunetti, the more I like him. He’s a straight man in a very crooked world–a man who sees the big things as they should be, rather than as they are. He doesn’t try to right every wrong–he knows the futility in that–but tries to right the big wrongs, the murders and deaths it is his job to solve.

But what I like most is that we see Guido not just at work, but at home, talking to and thinking about his wife. Worrying about his children. Thinking about food and money and the things that we all consider every day. But most importantly, we see him enjoying the world around him. He stops to enjoy the beauty of Venice, of the everyday world around him.

It is the complexities that make him such an interesting character. The complexities of the murders and crime around him are a bonus.

And the mysteries are good. Like the characters, they are complex, and there are not always eat solutions or answers. (As much as I love mysteries and the resolution of story arcs, sometimes the resolution is that the problem is not and cannot be solved, and that there can be no neat and tidy ending. It is this not knowing how things are going to turn out that I like so much about these mysteries.

You should easily be able to read this book without having read the first. Although each story builds Guido’s character, you should be able to appreciate the mystery and enjoy it for its strengths even without having read the previous book. But it seems to me that the more we learn about Guido through this series, the better the series will get.
Rating: 8/10

Published by Penguin Books

Re-read: August 2013

A body if found in the canal and all signs point to it being an American.

‘Ah, that could be it,’ the doctor said. ‘An American.’

‘What?’

‘Why he’s in such good shape,’ Rizzaldi answered… ‘That might explain it. They’re always so fit, so healthy.’ Together, they looked at the body, at the narrow waist that showed under the still open shirt.

‘If he is,’ Rizzaldi said, ‘the teeth will tell me.’

‘Why?’

‘Because of the dental work. They used different techniques, better materials. If he’s had any dental work done, I’ll be able to tell you this afternoon if he’s American.

Odd, the things that set people apart.

In this story, we finally get to meet Vianello, but still no Signorina Elettra. Soon, I hope, because she’s one of my favorite characters.

Of course, we still have Patta.

‘Brunetti,’ he began. ‘I’d like you to step down to my office for a moment.’

‘Immediately, sir,’ Brunetti answered, bulling yet another report towards him, opening it, and beginning to read.

‘I’d like yo uto come now, not “immediately”, Commissario,’ Patta said, so sternly that Brunetti realized he mist have someone, someone important, in his office with him.

I’ll warn you, there is no happy resolution to this story. Those who least deserve it are the ones who are punished.

Despite that, it’s still a very good story.
Rating: 8/10

Re-Read: October 2015

The second Commisario Brunetti books finds Brunetti investigating the murder of an American stationed in Vicenza, Italy.

In this book, we meet Sargent Vianello, who will help Brunetti throughout the series, and become just as beloved.

When Brunetti turned to leave, Vianello asked, ‘What about the deal I make with him? Will we keep our part of it?’

At this, Brunetti turned back and gave Vianello a long look. ‘Of course. If criminals can’t believe in an illegal deal with the police, what can they believe in?’

And we also see more of the relationship between Brunetti and Paola, such as in this conversation about teenage boys.

(T)hen I discovered girls, and I forgot all about being angry or lost, or whatever I was. I just wanted them to like me. That’s the only thing that was important to me.’

‘Were there a lot of them?’ she asked.

He shrugged.

‘And did they like you?’ He grinned.

‘Oh, go away, Guido, and find yourself something to do. Watch television.’

‘I hate television.’

‘Then help me do the dishes.’

‘I love television.’

It’s just a small exchange, but it tells you much about the two characters and their relationship.

This is (as many of these books can be) quite dark and rather horrifying, but not in a things-that-go-bump-in-the-night way, but in its look at politics and human nature and greed kind of way. And as with many books in this series–don’t expect a happy ending.
Rating: 8/10

Dressed for Death (1994)

The third Commiario Guido Brunetti mystery, Dressed for Death starts with the body of what is assumed to be a prostitute found behind a slaughterhouse in Marghera. The case falls to the Mestre police department, however due to a series of unfortunate events, they have no detectives, so Brunetti is sent to investigate, despite the fact that he was supposed to leave for vacation.

As with Death at La Fenice, there was so much I liked about this story. I like Brunetti and how he deals with people. I find Venice fascinating–so much corruption, taken at face value. And I really enjoy the mysteries. Then putting all three of those things together, we got a thoroughly enjoyable story.

What I think I like best about Brunetti is that even his home life is fascinating. His wife and kids are real and complex people (even if we don’t see much of his kids in this story) and his own background is as complex as the mysteries in which he becomes entangled.

I have no idea if the Venice presented her reflects Venice as it actually is (or was as this book was written in 1994) but real or no it’s a fascinating place. Not a world I think I would be comfortable moving in myself, but a fascinating place to visit.

The other thing I particularly like is the complexity of the mystery, and law enforcement. In such a complex city, solving a murder is complex was well, especially when politics and money are involved.

If you have not read the first Commissario Brunetti you should easily be able to read this without having read Death at La Fenice. Although we learn more about Brunetti’s character here, this story is not dependent upon the previous. But as the first mystery was good, you’ll probably want to find and enjoy that one as well.
Rating: 7/10

Published by Penguin Books

Re-read: August 2013

A body is discovered in Marghera–the industrial sector near Venice. It’s discovered because one of the worker’s in the slaughterhouse saw a pair of red high heeled shoes that he assumes were abandoned by one of the prostitutes who work in the area, and hoped they were clean and could be sold for some extra money. To his surprise, they were attached to a body.

But something else, even more important, happens in this story.

Leaving Patta’s office, Brunetti noticed that, while he was inside, furniture had suddenly appeared in the small anteroom that stood directly outside Patta’s office. A large wooden desk stood on one side, and a small table had been placed below the window.

That’s right!

‘And you are?’ he asked with a smile.

‘Elettra Zorzi, sir. I started work last week as secretary to Vice-Questore Patta.’

‘I’m very pleased to meet you, Signorina Zorzi,’ Brunetti said.

‘I believe I’m to work for you, as well, Commissario,’ she said smiling.

And now we have all the players I love.

Mind you, that’s not all there is to this story. Brunetti takes a look at prostitution outside the industrial areas, as well as prostitution in Mestre. (This won’t be the first time he delves into the dark world of prostitution in and around Venice.) It’s unflinching, and although I’m not certain she gets everything quite right, if the subculture in Italy is similar to the subculture in the US, but it is viewed kindly.

And of course, there are the bits that have show the age of the story (min-90s) but are hilarious never-the-less.

‘It takes me forever to change the message. So many buttons to push. The first time I did it, I recorded myself swearing at the machine. No one left a message for a week, until I thought the thing wasn’t working and called myself from a phone booth. Shocking, the language the machine used.

I found this particularly amusing, because my father STILL has problems with my parent’s answering machine.

I also found this bit, written in 1994, to be particularly interesting.

‘I think the political wave of the future is groups like the Lega, groups which aim at fragmenting larger groups, breaking larger units into smaller. Just kook at Eastern Europe and Yugoslavia. Look at our own political leghe, wanting to chop Italy back up into a lot of smaller, independent units.

‘Could you be making too much of this, Damiano?’

‘Of course, I could be. The Lega della Moralita could just as easily be a bunch of harmless old ladies who like to meet together and talk about how good the old times were.

It just struck me as very interesting.

One dark note, however, at the very end of the story, that struck me as both particularly true, and particularly sad. (rot13)

‘V’z nsenvq gung’f abg tbvat gb or s nal uryc. Abg gb zr naq abg gb Yrbaneqb.’ Jura Oeharggv ortna gb bowrpg, fur phg uvz bss naq fnvq, ‘Pbzzffnevb, gur cncref pna cevag nf zhpu nf gurl jnag nobhg jung ernyyl unccrarq, ohg nyy crbcyr ner rire tbvat gb erzrzore nobhg Yrbaneqb vf gur fgbel gung nccrnerq jura uvf obql jnf svefg qvfpbirerq, gung ur jnf sbhaq jrnevat n qerff naq oryvrirq gb or n genafirfgvgr. Naq n juber.

‘Ohg vg jvyy orpbzr pyrne gung jnf abg gehr, Fvtaben.’

‘Bapr zhq unf orra guebja, Pbzzvffnevb, vg pnaabg rire or shyyl jnfurq bss. Crbcyr yvxr gb guvax onqyl bs bgure crbcyr; gur jbefr vg vf, gur unccvre vg znxrf gurz. Lrnef sebz abj, jura crbcyr urne Yrbaneq’f anzr, gurl jvyy erzrzore gur qerff naq gurl jvyy guvax jungrire qvegl gubhtugf gurl jnag gb guvax.’

That is very sad, and very true.

As always, this is a very good story, and highly recommended.
Rating: 8/0

Re-read: October 2015

And now, in the third book of the Commisario Brunetti series, we finally meet Elettra, who will become just as (if not more) central to the series as Vianello.

“Could you see what your computer tells you about the dealings of Avvocato Giancarlo Santomauro?”

I grinned, reading that, knowing what would soon be in store for Brunetti.

However, like this previous book, there isn’t a particularly happy ending.

“Once mud has been thrown, Commissario, it cannot ever be fully washed off. People like to think badly of other people; the worse it is, the happier it makes them.”

Which is very sad, but also true.
Rating: 8/10

Death and Judgment (1995)

In two seemingly unrelated incidents, a truck goes off a cliff, killing the driver and his unexpected cargo of lumber and women. And months later, in Venice, Commissario Guido Brunetti is given the investigation of the murder of a prominent local loyal, whose unblemished record is enough cause for suspicion in thoroughly corrupt Venice.

As with the previous mysteries, we follow not just Guido’s investigation of the murder, but to his home where he discusses (against all regulations) his cases with his beloved wife. And this time, his daughter Chiara, however tangentially.

There are so many things that make these mysteries so good. First and foremost is Guido’s (and thus the author’s) open-eyed love of Venice. Despite the faults and corruption that run through the core, Guido still loves the city, and considers it in loving detail, especially when he must go elsewhere in pursuit of a case.

As with the previous stories, we continue to see the corruption in the city, and how that corruption has infiltrated every corner of the city, and of Italy. We see that the laws and rules are so arcane and confusing that it is impossible for anyone not to break laws during the course of a regular week. It also leads to and interesting discussion upon legality versus morality, and where Guido’s job falls in this spectrum.

As with the previous book, you should easily be able to pick up Death and Judgment without having read the previous books in the series, but as with most series, the books build upon each other, so it’s always more fulfilling to read a series, watching the characters develop over the course of the series.
Rating: 8/10

Published by Grove Press

Re-Read: August 2013

This is a very dark story.

In fact, considering my mood, I probably should have chosen something completely different to re-read.

Attorney Carlo Trevisan was shot on the train, his body discovered right before the train reached the next station. There seem to be no obvious suspects, but the more Brunetti looks into the death, the more odd coincidences appear, and the more the death seems to tie into another murder, in a different jurisdiction.

This is another story with an ambiguous ending–some people are brought to justice, so to speak, but more than that, those with power cover up what they don’t want known.

Very very dark.

Mind you, the whole book isn’t dark, and we do get to see more and more of Vianello and Signorina Elettra.

And there is always Brunetti’s humor.

‘Tonight at ten?’

‘How will I know you?’ Brunetti asked, hoping della Corte wouldn’t be a cop who looked like a cop.

‘I’m bald. How will I know you?’

‘I look like a cop.’

But I fear there is more dark than humor in this story.
Rating: 7/10  

Re-Read: October 2015

The fourth book in the Commisario Brunetti series opens with a truck smuggling prostitutes crashing, and killing the driver and all the women in back. We then see the death of Avvocato Carlo Trevisan.

(H)is own office, specializing in corporate and international law. Italy is a country in which many laws are passed one day, only to be repealed the next. Nor is it strange that, in a country where the point of even the simplest newspaper story is often impossible to decipher, there sometimes exists a measure of confusion as to the exact meaning of the law. The resulting fluidity of interpretation creates a climate most propitious to lawyers, who claim the ability to understand the law. Among these, then, Avvocato Carlo Trevisan.

Because this is a mystery, we know these things are going to somehow be related, but we don’t know how.

A word of warning–this is another depressing story, where we again see how the rich and powerful are able to commit crimes with near impunity.

Or those who are smart enough to skirt the edge.

Brunetti had more than once reflected upon the strangeness of the fact that a woman with Signorina Elettra’s natural inclination toward the duplicitous should have chosen to work for the police.

One of the more surprising (and distressing) things that happens in this story is that Chiara is involves herself in the investigation, when she discovers that she knows the daughter of the murdered man. This (unsurprisingly) causes tension between Brunetti and Paola.

“I’m not sure it’s all that much larger an issue, but I think if I were to speak slightingly of you, it would be wrong.”

“You always speak slightingly of me,” Brunetti said, forcing himself to smile.

“No, Guido, I speak slightingly to you. That’s different. I would never say any of those things about you.”

“Because that’s dishonorable?”

“Precisely,” she said, smiling. “But it’s not dishonorable to say them to me?”

“Of course not, especially if they’re true.”

Not that I disagree with her, but it’s an interesting distinction.

It’s also amusing to see the state-of-the art technology from that time.

“I’ve had a modem installed on the Vice-Questore’s phone,” she said, pointing to a metal box that sat on the desk a few centimeters from the phone. Wires, Brunetti saw, led from the box to her computer.

And this we are truly introduced to what Signorina Elettra can do.

But, as I said, be warned that this is another book with a distressing ending. It’s good and realistic, but it’s also pretty miserable.
Rating: 8/10

Acqua Alta (1996)

In Acqua Alta we return to two of the characters that Guido met in the first mystery, Death at La Fenice. Brett Lynch is beaten in the doorway of her own apartment. When Guido discovers what has happened he goes to her hospital where he again meets Flavia Pitrelli, with whom he did not have the most cordial relationship several years before. First they must discover why Brett was beaten. Then, when other deaths follow, they must discover how those deaths are related to the assault against Brett.

Guido’s humanity shines through in this story just as strongly as it does in the previous stories. What isn’t as strong, however, is the mystery. Unlike previous book, I was pretty sure that Brett and Flavia were going to survive–it would have been unnecessarily cruel to bring them back just to kill one of them off, and we got to know few other characters, so there was little sense of loss related to the deaths.

Additionally, the scenes with Guido at home with his family seemed almost tacked on, as opposed to these vignettes as they appear in other stories. He still loves his family, but the familial interludes seemed to me to lack the depth of earlier episodes.

We also left Guido’s POV several times to return to Brett. Although this allowed us to follow her part of the story when Guido was absent, it also made her danger less immediate. To her know thoughts as the story passed seemed to say that she would survive to the end of the story to share those thoughts, so her danger, although immediate and severe, as not deadly.

The other off note was that although we began the story with Brett, and returned to her POV several times throughout the story, she is somehow abandoned at th end of the story. Flavia mentions Brett several times, but the shift from knowing what Brett was thinking and feeling to hearing about her third hand was distinctly unsatisfying.

Don’t get me wrong, this was a very good book. I just felt the ending wasn’t nearly as strong as previous books.
Rating: 7/10

Published by Grove Press

Re-Read: August 2013

This story returns to Brett and Flavia, who we met in the first book, Death at La Fenice. Brett has returned from China, only it appears that someone is not happy for her to have returned.

It is the time of acqua alta, or high water, in Venice. The sirens go off, the walkways flood, and temporary boardwalks are put up, and anyone with property and ground level will find it flooded.

We finally see Vianello and Signorina Elettra taking a larger part at Brunetti’s work–something I’ve been waiting for as I have been re-reading these books.

‘(I)t didn’t seem they were interested in taking anything.’

‘Short-sighted on their part. It would be a good place to rob.’

At this, Brunetti broke down. ‘How do you know that, Vianello?’

‘My sister-in-law’s next-door neighbor is her maid. Goes in three times a week to clean, keeps and eye on the place when she’s in China. She’s talked about what’s in there, says it must be worth a fortune.’

Of course, Patta remains.

(H)e removed his coat and put it on a hanger, then hung it on the curtain rod that ran in front of the window above the radiator. Anyone looking into the room from across the canal would see, perhaps, a man who had hanged himself in his own office. If they worked in the Questura, their first impulse would no doubt be to count the floors, looking to see if it was Patta’s window.

But of course characters in every story are Italy and Venice. As an American, some of the things that Brunetti and others accept as the way things are done continues to surprise me.

No Italian would bother to ask why the shipments were not made directory in Germany. The Germans, it was rumored, saw the law as something to be obeyed, unlike the Italians, who saw it as something first to be fathomed and then evaded.

Of course, there is a mystery as well, and as usual, justice is mutable. It seems to me that trying to be a police officer in a land where justice is mutable would be a very very hard thing. Yet Brunetti doesn’t give up.
Rating: 7/10

Re-Read: October 2015

The fifth book in the Commisario Brunetti series finds the city of Venice a major character, as the Acqua Alta threatens the city with flooding.

We also return to Flavia Petrelli and Brett, the women from the first book. Brett has returned to the city to speak to the Dottor Semenzato, who arranged the exhibition of Chinese items at the Venice museum (which was how Flavia and Brett met). But when two thugs attempt to convince Brett not to attend that meeting, Brunetti becomes involved.

I noticed something interesting when reading this book, which is that we really are not given much of a physical description of Brunetti in this series.

Just inside the door stood a man, tallish and heavily built, who looked vaguely familiar but whom she couldn’t place.

Which is perfectly fine with me, but strikes me as somewhat unusual.

We also get a glimpse into opera, which amuses me.

‘Then you are going to sing it?’ he asked. The press had been buzzing with this for weeks, even though the opening night was almost a full year away. The soprano whose name had been ‘hinted at’ as the one ‘rumoured to be’ the ‘possible choice’ – this was the way things were expressed at La Scala – had said she was interested in the possibility and would consider it, which clearly meant she wasn’t, and wouldn’t. Flavia Petrelli, who had never sung the role, was named as the next possibility, and she had issued, just two weeks ago, a statement to the press saying she refused absolutely even to consider the idea, as close to a formal acceptance as a soprano could be expected to come.

And as always there is the Italian way of doing things.

‘Occam’s Razor,’ she finally said in English, voice resigned.

Brunetti waited for Flavia to speak, thinking this might make some sense to her, but Flavia said nothing. So he asked, ‘Whose razor?’

‘William of Occam,’ Brett repeated, though she kept her eyes on her glass. ‘He was a medieval philosopher. English, I think. He had a theory that said the correct explanation to any problem was usually the one that made the simplest use of the available information.’

Signor William, Brunetti caught himself thinking, was clearly not an Italian.

Although there is murder here, this is a far less depressing book that the previous two. Not that there aren’t injustices, it’s more than the resolution is far less grim.

Plus, I find acqua Alta itself fascinating.
Rating: 8/10

Quietly in Their Sleep (1997)

This was a rather strange story in comparison to the previous books. Brunetti is given only a vague idea that there might be something untoward happening in a nursing home–a home that is run by the same man as the home in which Brunetti’s mother resides. It is this personal interest that draws Brunetti into trying to determine if something untoward has happened or not.

What he ends up discovering is far more–and far worse–than he expected.

As with Death and Judgment there are entanglements with Brunetti’s home life that complicate matters. And to be honest, it was this complication that I felt was the weakest part of the book. The parallels of his case and the issue at home seemed a little too pat and things fell into place a little too neatly. Donna Leon almost makes up for it with the parallel resolution of the two cases.

It is also interesting to see how Brunetti is readily willing to accept extra-ordinary means–means that are outside the bounds of the law–when it is useful to him, even as he privately rails again similar powers being used against him.

Essentially, we were setting Brunetti change and learn to use whatever means he has at hand to fight for what he believes to be right, even if those means are outside the normal legal bounds and channels.

And that is what saves this book.

If you have not read a Commissario Guido Brunetti, you should be easily able to begin the series here. However, as the strongest part of this book is seeing how much Brunetti has changed since we first met him in Death at La Fenice, I would recommend starting at the beginning and then reading your way to this book.
Rating: 7/10

Published by Penguin

Re-Read: September 2013

This was published as Death of Faith in Great Britain. So if you come across that, it’s the same as Quietly in their Sleep.

Brunetti is surprised by a young woman who comes into his office, asking him to look into the deaths of five of her patients in the casa di cura where she worked–another place than the home where she had cared for Brunetti’s mother as Suor’Immacolata.

Peace is also disturbed at home, when Chiara’s report card arrives, and they being to delve into just why she received a poor grade. Here we see clearly where Guido and Paola have irreconcilable differences on some subjects.

And of course I am reminded why I like Brunetti and Paola so well.

‘(W)ill knowing what she reads make you know who she is?’

‘Can you think of a better way to tell?’

I certainly can’t.

Between the mystery Suor’Immacolata brought him, and his home like, this story deals a great deal with religion–or more specifically, the Catholic church. So, you’ve been warned.
Rating 7/10

Re-Read: October 2015

The 6th Commissario Brunetti mystery finds Brunetti in charge while Patta is on vacation. It also finds a young woman in his office with claims of patients at a nursing home being murdered for the legacy they left to the church and home.

‘No, Commissario, it’s not your mother. Nothing will happen to her.’ She paused then, embarrassed at how that sounded and at the grim truth contained in her words: the only thing that could ever again happen to Brunetti’s mother was death.

Except that Suor’Immacolata is no longer around to calm Brunetti’s mother.

Suor’Eleanora, a woman whom the course of years had turned sour and to whom the vows meant poverty of spirit, chastity of humour, and obedience only to some rigorous concept of duty. The fact that his mother could be, even if for an instant, in the care of this woman enraged him as a man; the fact that the casa di cura was considered to be one of the best available shamed him as a citizen.

Sadly, things seem to be the same around the world.

We also truly begin to learn of Signorina Elettra’s skills with the computer–skills that will become more and more useful over the course of the series.

‘If they were recorded here, can you get the information?’

‘Of course.’

‘How?’

She looked down at her skirt and brushed away an invisible speck. ‘I’m afraid it’s illegal.’

‘What’s illegal?’

‘The way I get the information.’

‘Which is …?’

‘I’m not sure you can understand, Commissario, or that I could explain it to you adequately, but there are ways of discovering the codes which give access to almost all information. The more public the information is – a city hall, public records – the easier it is to discover the code. And once a person has that, it’s as if … well, it’s as if they’d gone home and left the door to the office open and the lights on.’

‘Is this true of all government agencies?’ he asked uneasily.

‘I think you’d prefer not to know the answer,’ she said, her smile gone.

‘How easy is it to get this information?’ he asked.

‘I’d say it’s in direct proportion to the skill of the person looking for it.’

‘And how skilled are you, Signorina?’ The question summoned back a smile, a very small one.

‘I think that’s a question I’d prefer not to answer, Commissario.’

And we also see Vianello starting to come into his own in this story.

‘Well?’ Brunetti asked as he took the list from his pocket again. He checked the next address and set off toward it; Vianello fell into step beside him.

‘Is that what’s known as an important personage in the city?’ was Vianello’s attempt at an answer.

‘I think so.’

‘Poor Venice, then.’

Rating: 8/10

A Noble Radiance (1998)

The Commissario Guido Brunetti series continues with A Noble Radiance. A body is discovered in a field that has lain fallow for several years, and from the ring found with the body, it is likely that the body is that of a young man who had been kidnapped two years previously. Because the kidnapping was in Venice, the case is reopened, and Brunetti ends up with the case.

I am really enjoying this series. I like Brunetti, his attitude, and his sense of justice. I also like that although the criminal may be known, that does not mean that justice is always served. I also really like Paola. Sometimes spouses and significant others seemed to appear in mysteries only the further flesh out the main character. But Paola is a strong character, and to be honest, one I wouldn’t mind reading about myself even though I’m not sure how exciting a book about an English literature professor in Italy would be. But the point is I’d like to spend time with Paola, the say way I enjoy spending time with Burnetti.

Even with a history of complex cases, this one took so many strange twists and turns I was never quite sure where it was going, until everything suddenly fell perfectly into place. I picked up hints and pieces that Brunetti seemed to be ignoring, but I didn’t know what to do with them any more than he did.

Like the previous books in the series, you should be able to begin reading anywhere. This book mentions previous cases, but these is nothing mentioned that would ruin earlier books, and should be too confusing for someone starting the series at this point.
Rating: 7/10

Published by Penguin

Re-Read: September 2013

A body is discovered in mountains–a body that had been hastily buried in a shallow grave some time before. The only immediately identifying feature is a signet ring–the ring of a family whose son had been kidnapped and held for random two years before.

This was an especially dark story, and I learned more about Italian kidnapping than I ever wanted to know, such as the fact that the Italian government seizes the assets of the victim’s family, so they can’t pay the ransom, so as not to encourage other kidnappings.

Pretty horrible, all around, that.

That’s not to say there aren’t amusing bits.

By bedtime, the skull had been variously reported to ave been shattered by a blow from an axe, or a bullet, and to display signs that an attempt had been made to dissolve it with acid. The police had determined, people were certain, that they were the bones of a pregnant woman, a young male, and the husband of Liugina Menegaz, gone off to Rome twelve years ago and never heard form since.

Ah, rumor.

We also get a quick glimpse at Brunetti’s father.

(World War II) made Brunetti’s father the captain of a regiment of infantry who had gone off to Russia in their paper-soled boots to fight against the enemies of Italy. Instead they fought a losing battle against the Russian winter, and those few who survived, Brunetti’s father among them. had then disappeared for years into Stalin’s gulags.

Not being a good student of history, I sometimes forget that Italy was part of the Axis in World War II. Probably because the actions of the Italians paled in comparison to the horrors perpetrated by Germany and Japan.

This is another book that was okay, but I can’t say it was one of my favorites.
Rating: 7/10

Re-Read: October 2015

The seventh Commissario Brunetti mystery opens with a body (more bones than body) discovered when a field is plowed.

We get to enjoy the usual characters, of course.

Signorina Elettra was at his door before he could answer his own question. ‘Please come in,’ he called. ‘You found it very quickly.’ Such had not always been the case with the Questura files, not until her blessed arrival. ‘How long have you been with us now, Signorina?’ he asked.

‘It will be three years this summer, Commissario. Why do you ask?’

It was on his lips to say, ‘So that I might better count my joys,’ but that sounded to him too much like one of her own rhetorical flights. Instead, he answered, ‘So I can order flowers to celebrate the day.’

And we get another peek into his relationship with his father in law.

He took the time to fold the paper neatly in two, and then in two again. ‘It’s become so bad, hasn’t it?’ he asked, holding the paper up between them.

‘Not if you like cannibalism, incest, and infanticide,’ Brunetti answered.

‘Did you read it today?’ When Brunetti shook his head, the Count explained. ‘There was a story this morning about a woman in Tehran who killed her husband, ground up his heart, and ate it in something called ab goosht’ Before Brunetti could register either surprise or disgust, the Count went on, ‘But then they opened a parenthesis and gave the recipe for ab goosht: tomatoes, onions, and chopped meat.’ He shook his head. ‘Who are they writing for? Who wants to know that sort of thing?’

Brunetti had long ago abandoned any faith he had ever had in the taste of the general public, and so he answered, ‘The readers of Il Gazzettino, I’d say.’

The Count looked across at him and nodded. ‘I suppose you’re right.’

And it’s good there is lightheartedness (of a sort), because the mystery is pretty awful when Brunetti finally discovers the resolution.

We also get a peek into Brunetti’s past, when we see some of his relationship with his brother (and of course, their regular visits to their mother).

Though it does touch on something I’ve felt for awhile.

‘The poor mother,’ Elettra said and then added, ‘I wonder if she’s religious.’

‘Why?’

‘It helps people when terrible things happen, when people die.’

‘Are you?’ Brunetti asked.

‘Per carità,’ she said, pushing the idea back towards him with raised hands. ‘The last time I was in church was for my confirmation. It would have upset my parents if I hadn’t done it, which was pretty much the same for all my friends. But since then I’ve had nothing to do with it.’

‘Then why did you say that it helps people?’

‘Because it’s true,’ she said simply. ‘The fact that I don’t believe in it doesn’t prevent it from helping other people. I’d be a fool to deny that.’

Rating: 7/10

Fatal Remedies (1999)

I started Fatal Remedies immediately after I finished A Noble Radiance, wasn’t sure about the direction the story was taking, and then picked it up again today, as I have a whole stack of Guido Brunetti books waiting to be read.

What I was unsure about was how things were going to turn out between Guido and Paola. As his marriage is one of the centers of his world, any threat to the stability made me unhappy. However, that concern rapidly disappeared as the situation turned deadly.

As always, Donna Leon is good at pointing out the inadequacies of the legal system, and how easy it would be for a good man to begin to work outside the system, as so many other police in the system did. So I very much enjoyed Guido (mostly) sticking to his principles, and for once meeting a lawyer who was much the same as him.

But the book also probes more deeply into the question of what action is moral when immoral actions seem to be allowed by the legal system. No answers are provided, but in the corruption of Guido’s Venice, it is as always an interesting question to consider.

As with all the books so far in the series, you should easily be able to read Fatal Remedies even if you have read no other books in the series. However, I will note that Paola’s actions and beliefs–and Brunetti’s reactions to them–may seem strange to someone who has not been reading the series.
Rating: 8/10

Published by Penguin / Grove Press

Re-Read: September 2013

This is one of my least favorite Brunetti stories, for a very specific reason.

The story opens with Paola breaking the window of a travel agency. She does it for noble reason–she wants to make people aware of how these businesses were promoting the sex trade to third world countries.

But.

Paola isn’t stupid. She grew up in Venice, the daughter of the nobility (so to speak). She knew the affect her actions would have upon Guido’s career.

And she didn’t care, and then she acted surprised when Brunetti suffered repercussions.

It was an incredibly selfish action, wrapped in the nobility of a good deed.

That act of stupidity and selfishness all but ruins the book for me, even though I found the mystery itself quite interesting.

SPOILER (rot 13)
Naq gb nqq vawhel gb vafhyg, Cnbyn’f sngure xrrcf ure sebz gehyl fhssrevat gur pbafrdhraprf bs ure npgvbaf, ol hfvat uvf cbjre gb uhfu gur zrqvn.

Vs Cnbyn jnf tbvat gb qb fbzrguvat fb fghcvq, gura fur fubhyq unir unq gb gehyl qrny jvgu gur pbafrdhraprf. Vafgrnq, ure sngure “qrnyf jvgu vg” naq gur fhowrpg arire pbzrf hc ntnva va gur frevrf.

V ernyvmr gur frevrf vfa’g nobhg Cnbyn, ohg vg znxrf ure npgvbaf jvgubhg nal gehr pbafrdhrapr, juvpu veevgngrf gur penc bhg bs zr.
END SPOILER

Of course, there are still bits I loved, such as this exchange:

‘Accessed?’ he repeated, using the English word…

‘It’s computer speak, sir,’ she said.

‘To access?’ he asked. ‘It’s a verb now?’

‘Yes sir, I believe it is.’

‘But it didn’t used to be,’ Brunetti said, remembering when it had been a noun.

‘I think the Americans are allowed to do that to ther words, sir.’

‘Make them verbs? Or nouns? If they feel like it?’

‘Yes, sir.’

That just amuses me. As does the bit about Signorina Elettra’s flying toasters screen saver. It places the story so squarely in a specific place in time, it amuses me.

So despite the bits I quite liked about the mystery, and how the story shows how important his marriage to Paola is, Paola’s selfish actions all but ruin the book for me.
Rating: 5/10

NOTE: I am fascinated how my opinion of Fatal Remedies changed over time.

Re-Read: October 2015

I actually didn’t repurchase this as an ebook, because I clearly remembered not liking it the first time around.

Mind you, I’m not saying it’s not good, because it is good. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

The 8th mystery opens with Paola breaking the window of a travel agency that sells sex tours to third world countries where children can be purchased.

It’s a good story, and the repercussions to Paola’s actions are fascinating, but I read quickly, because I still didn’t like it very much (though I didn’t dislike it as much as I did the first time through).

Friends in High Places (2000)

Apparently, Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti books are not being published in the US following European copyright dates. Friends in High Places has a European copyright of 2000, but was published in the US only recently. Not that this particularly matters in the grand scheme of things, as the Brunetti books can be read out of order, it’s mildly annoying. Of course it also means maybe one of two other earlier books will be republished in the US.

As the book begins, Brunetti is interrupted from his relaxation by a man from the Ufficio Catasto–apparently no plas were ever filed for Brunetti’s apartment, and as far as the city is concerned this means the apartment does not exist. This annoying and frustrating encounter leads Brunetti to a confusing web of deceit–and because this is a mystery series, murder.

It’s interesting to see the chain of events unfold, and to see how only accidental circumstances lead Brunetti to investigate this murder.

What is also interesting is that several other mysteries and deaths appear along the way, and Brunetti must decide which deaths relate to his cases and which do not. I also found the resolution of the story very interesting. As with Donna Leon’s other books, the resolution is not what you would expect in an American murder mystery, and justice is never quite the way you expect it.
Rating: 7/10

Published by Grove Press

Re-Read: September 2013

When Commissario Guido Brunetti is visited by a young bureaucrat investigating the lack of official approval for the building of his apartment years earlier, his first reaction, like any other Venetian, is to think of whom he knows who might bring pressure to bear on the relevant government department. But when the bureaucrat rings Brunetti at work, clearly scared, and is then found dead after a fall from scaffolding, something is obviously going on that has implications greater than the fate of Brunetti’s apartment.

That’s a far better summary than I can come up with right now.

This book really looks at the corruption in Italy–and I suppose in Venice.

At no time did it occur to him, as it did not occur to Paola, to approach the matter legally, to find out the names of the proper offices and officials and the proper steps to follow. Nor did it occur to either one of them that there might be a clearly defined bureaucratic procedure by which they could resolve the problem.

As I read these stories, it occasionally comes to mind that Michael, a Lawful Good Order Muppet, would never survive.

Despite the corruption, and the fact that the criminal often goes free in these book, they generally aren’t dark. This one, however, had a particularly dark passage that resonated with me, considering events in my life recently.

No, Signora, your Marco will never have any trouble again, but all that you will have now, for the rest of your lives, is loss and pain and the terrible sense that you somehow failed this boy. And no matter how deep your knowledge that you were not responsible for it, your certainty that you were will always be deeper and more absolute.

Yeah, it’s been that kind of year.

But despite the dark, it’s an interesting mystery, and I did enjoy it.
Rating: 7/10

Re-Read: October 2015

The ninth Commissario Brunetti book finds the Brunetti family possibly in danger of losing their apartment.

‘I’m afraid there is some doubt as to the official status of your apartment.’

“‘Official status”?’ Brunetti repeated, looking off to the left of Rossi, to the solid wall and then up to the equally solid ceiling. ‘I’m not sure I understand what you mean.’

‘There’s some doubt about the apartment,’ Rossi said with a smile that Brunetti thought looked a bit nervous. Before Brunetti could again ask for clarification, Rossi went on, ‘That is, there are no papers in the Ufficio Catasto to show that building permits were ever granted for this entire floor, or that they were approved when it was built or,’ and here he smiled again, ‘that, in fact, it was ever built.’
...
I’d like to know what all this means, Signor Rossi. Is there some dispute about our ownership of this apartment?’

Rossi gave his nervous smile again. ‘I’m afraid it’s a bit more complicated than that, Signor Brunetti.’

Brunetti had no idea what could be more serious than that. ‘What is it, then?’

‘I’m afraid this apartment doesn’t exist.’

The insanity of this both makes me giggle and horrifies me, because that is precisely how bureaucracy works.

I also adore this exchange between Guido and Paola.

‘Guido, you’ve read Xenophon at least twice since we’ve been married. If you don’t know whether or not they got back, then you weren’t paying attentiontion, or you’ve got the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s.’

‘I’m pretending I don’t know what happens so I’ll enjoy it more,’

I love that so very much.

We also see that Patta’s son is in trouble, and that Patta has to actually ask Brunetti for a favor. Of course, it’s Patta, so it’s not like he’ll remember it.

But, there is also Signorina Elettra.

Instead of bothering himself with considering the correct bureaucratic process by which a request for information could be made, he dialled Signorina Elettra and asked her if she could get into their files.

‘Ah, the Guardia di Finanza,’ she breathed, making no attempt to disguise the rapture with which she greeted this request, ‘I’ve longed to be asked to do this.’

‘You wouldn’t do it on your own, Signorina?’ he asked.

‘Why no, sir,’ she answered, surprised that he would ask. ‘That would be, well, that would be poaching, wouldn’t it?’

‘And this, if I ask you to do it?’

‘Big game hunting, sir,’ she sighed and was gone.

I quite enjoyed re-reading this–and pretending I didn’t know what happened.
Rating: 8/10

A Sea of Troubles (2001)

I am failing to understand the hows and whys of Penguin’s publishing schedule for Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series. A Sea of Troubles was first published in 2001, but was published by Penguin and released in the US only this year (2009). Additionally, there was not notice this was an older book, which meant I was very confused as to Vianello was back in uniform until I checked the copyright date.

Now if this had been a so-so book, I could have seen them putting off republication, however, this was not a so-so book; it was excellent.

A fishing boat is found burned and the bodies of the fishermen are found inside. Brunetti goes to the scene to investigate, however, the small fishing community refuses to share anything with him.

One of the reasons I am particularly annoyed by the publication order of the books is that we learn a lot about Signora Elettra and this book is really a turning point in her relationship with Burnetti and Vianello. And of course the mystery is very good.

SPOILER (rot 13)
Qba’g trg zr jebat–V ernyyl yvxr Fvtaben Ryrggen. Ubjrire, V ernyyl rawblrq ure cneg va guvf fgbel, naq V yvxrq ubj fur jnfa’g noyr gb rirelguvat fur gubhtug fur pbhyq.

Ohg V guvax zhpu bs gur qenzn bs ure fnsrgl jnf ehvarq ol gur snpg gung V xarj abguvat gbb frevbhf unccrarq gb ure, fvapr fur’f eryngviryl hafpngurq va yngre obbxf. Naq V jnf cerggl fher gung Zbagvfv jnf tbvat gb trg xvyyrq, pbafvqrevat yngre obbxf gnyx nobhg gur lbhat arj cvybg. Fb gur fhfcrafr gurer jnf nyfb ehvarq.
END SPOILER

If you like Donna Leon, you’ll want to make sure to read A Sea of Troubles. If you haven’t read any books in the Commissario Guido Brunetti series, I highly recommend them, and although you could start here without difficultly, you’ll probably enjoy it more if you start at the beginning of the series.
Rating: 8/10

Published by Grove Press

Re-Read: October 2015

The tenth Commissario Brunetti mystery finds Signorina Elettra deciding to take a more active role in the investigation of the murders of a fisherman and his son.

We get Brunetti’s observations upon the people around him, of course.

Her smile, which exposed perfect teeth and permitted the appearance of only two small wrinkles at the corners of her mouth, gave Brunetti a suggestion of what she might have been had she not decided to devote her middle years to the reacquisition of her earlier ones.

I hope that I find myself becoming more and more like Brunetti.

Brunetti had more modest desires. He was a man of short views, interested in the here, the now, the concrete. He left larger goals and desires to others, contenting himself with smaller ones: a happy family, a decent life, the attempt to do his job as well as he could. It seemed to him little enough to ask of life, and he settled for those hopes.

It does seem little enough of life.

Be aware there are some unpleasant surprises in this book. Just so you know.
Rating: 8/10

Willful Behavior (2002)

I really hate the way this series is released/re-released in the US. This book was originally published in 2002, but I wasn’t able to get my hands on it until this year. Which is frustrating, since it obliquely referred to events in the previous book, which was not the book I read most recently, and I didn’t want to stop reading to refresh myself on the events in the previous book.

The story starts with Paola receiving a request from one of her students with regard to a possible legal question her husband Commissario Brunetti might be able to answer. And Brunetti receives a question from an old school friend with regards to a possible legal situation.

The questions seem minor at the time, but when on the the individuals ends up dead, Brunetti wonders how the seemingly innocent question was related to the murder (if it is at all).
Rating: 8/10

Published by Grove Press

Re-Read: September 2013

One of Paola’s students asks her if Brunetti can answer a legal question for her. Brunetti says he can’t give her a clear answer without knowing more about her question, and the answers she does give him only lead to more questions.

It also sidles up to a subject about which I know very little: the part Italy played in WWII.

‘Just like the French, we couldn’t forget what happened during the wars fast enough… (T)o give (the Germans) credit, they looked at what they did.

‘Did they have a choice?’ Brunetti asked.

‘With Communists in charge of half the country, the Cold War begin, and the Americans terrified which way they’d go. of course they had a choice. The Allies, once the Nuremberg Trials are over, would never have pushed the Germans’ noses in it. But they chose to examine the war years, at least to a certain degree. We never did, and so there is no history of those years, at least none that’s reliable.’

It’s another good story, that I enjoyed.
Rating: 7/10

Re-Read: November 2015

The eleventh Commissario Brunetti book finds both Guido and Paola involved in the favors and requests that pervade Venice (and Italy).

‘But you have to let me do something for you.’

‘All right, you can,’ Brunetti said immediately.

‘Good. What? Anything.’

‘The next time we eat at the restaurant, ask Signora Maria to give Paola the recipe for the filling she makes for the mussels.’

There was a long pause, but finally Marco said, as much in sorrow as in earnest, ‘That’s blackmail. She’d never do it.’

‘It’s too bad Signora Maria didn’t (redacted), then.’

‘No, you wouldn’t get it, even then,’ Marco said, resigned. ‘She’d go to jail before she’d tell you about the mussels.’

We also learn more about Paola’s father, the Count Orazio.

‘Orazio doesn’t talk about what happened during the war.’

Surprised that Lele should speak so familiarly of a man Brunetti had never addressed, not in more than two decades, by his first name, he asked, ‘But how do you know about it? From your father?’

‘Yes, at least part of it. Orazio told me the rest.’

‘I didn’t know you knew him that well, Lele.’

‘We fought together with the Partisans for two years.’

I like how the Count remains complex and mysterious to Brunetti (and us) no matter how much time passes.

But, so much of Brunetti remains the same.

‘Do you have the number of Vianello’s telefonino?’

‘Yes,’ Rizzardi answered. ‘Why don’t you have your own?’

‘I do. But I keep leaving it at work or at home.’

‘Why doesn’t Vianello just give you his?’

‘He’s afraid I’ll lose it.’

‘Is that why you do it?’

‘No, not entirely. I think part of it is that I’m nosy by nature, and I always want to know how the story will end or how or why it got started. I want to know why people do things.’

I also always want to know why people do things, and like Brunetti, I am often disappointed.
Rating: 8/10

Uniform Justice (2003)

I really like Commissario Guido Brunetti. I like his sense of justice and fairness. I like his intelligence and wit. And I like his wife. In fact I think I wish I was Paola.

A boy is found dead in the local military school, and it’s immediately filed as a suicide. However, the father was not only in Parliament, but had been forced to retire for being too honest. So Brunetti wants to see if the boys death could have been something other than suicide.

As usual in Venice, politics and corruption are at the heart of every case, and Brunetti continues to learn that discovering the truth does not always mean bringing criminals to justice.

Something about the back cover put me off this book, and I can’t tell you precisely what it was, but for some reason the back cover text on these books seems unappealing, even though I almost uniformly love what appears between the covers.

Go figure.

If you have not read a Commissario Guido Brunetti book, you should be able to start at this book. There are occasional references to past cases, but nothing that would keep one from understanding or enjoying this book.
Rating: 7/10

Published by Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

Re-Read: September 2013

This is an exceptionally depressing story.

It starts with a young man–a boy, really–found dead. Hanging in the restroom of a military academy.

Yeah. Depressing.

Suddenly he had a vision of what it must have been for the Moros to attempt to remove evidence of Ernesto’s presence from their homes, and he thought of the danger that would remain behind: a single, lonely sock found at the back of a closet could break a mother’s heart anew; a Spice Girls disc carelessly shoved into the plastic case meant to hold Vivaldi’s flute sonatas could shatter any calm. Months, perhaps years, would pass before the house would stop being a minefield, every cabinet or drawer to be opened with silent dread.

But there was a lovely part about family and the people you love, how, when you love your family, you move past politics and beliefs because they don’t matter.

But, it was still really sad, from beginning to end.
Rating: 8/10

Re-Read: November 2015

This is a somewhat distressing story, since it starts with the death of a teenager–just so you’ve been warned.

Since he had learned of the boy’s death, Brunetti had been assailed by the desire to know if the man had other children, but couldn’t bring himself to ask. He had some sort of theoretical belief that their existence would serve as consolation, however limited. He tried to put himself in Moro’s place and understand what solace he would find in the survival of one of his own children, but his imagination shied away from that horror. At the very thought, some force stronger than taboo seized him, numbing his mind.

Paola asked, ‘What’s she like?’

He thought about the woman, remembered her voice, the eyes that took little interest in seeing him, the paper-thin skin of her neck. ‘Reduced,’ he finally said. ‘She’s not a whole person any more.’ He thought Paola would ask about this, but she didn’t. ‘All I saw was a photo of her, taken some years ago, with the boy. And her husband. She still looks like the same person; I mean, you could recognize her from the photo, but there’s less of her.’

‘That makes sense,’ Paola said, ‘there is less of her.’

No matter how often his kids had gone to stay with their grandparents or other relatives, signs of their recent habitation had always lingered behind them. Suddenly he had a vision of what it must have been for the Moros to attempt to remove evidence of Ernesto’s presence from their homes, and he thought of the danger that would remain behind: a single, lonely sock found at the back of a closet could break a mother’s heart anew; a Spice Girls disc carelessly shoved into the plastic case meant to hold Vivaldi’s flute sonatas could shatter any calm. Months, perhaps years, would pass before the house would stop being a minefield, every cabinet or drawer to be opened with silent dread.

It’s almost frightening how clearly these losses as seen and–not explained, because there can never be an explanation, but it seems to give a glimpse of the horror of losing a child.

Almost.

Of course, we do have Signoria Elettra, which always helps.

So habituated had Brunetti become to her useful criminality that it did not for an instant trouble him that a person with greater sympathy for legal precision would translate her phrase, ‘had a look at’ as ‘broke into’.

This story deals in good part with the corruption of the Italian government, which never fails to astound me. I may find many problems with the American government, but we’ve got nothing on Italy.

It was Fernando Moro’s report that pointed out the inconvenient fact that those three hospitals, however grandiose their plans, however extensive their staffs, and however varied the services they were meant to provide, had never actually been built.

And of course there is his family, especially Paola.

‘Paola,’ he began. She peered at him over the top of her book, eyes vague and inattentive. ‘What would you do if I asked you for a separation?’

Her eyes had drifted back to the page before he spoke, but they shot back to his face now, and Anne Elliot was left to her own romantic problems. ‘If you what?’

‘Asked for a separation.’

Voice level, she inquired, ‘Before I go into the kitchen to get the bread knife, could you tell me if this is a theoretical question?’

‘Absolutely,’ he said, embarrassed by how happy her threat of violence had made him.

This story is in many ways a contemplation of many horrible things: the death of a child, and the depths to which political corruption can sink.

Don’t look here for a clean and happy ending. However, that doesn’t mean this story isn’t worth reading.
Rating: 7/10

Doctored Evidence (2004)

A querulous old woman is killed in her apartment, and suspicion automatically falls upon the maid. Scarpa closes the case, but when Brunetti comes back into town, new evidence–that Scarpa wants to dismiss unheard–comes to light.

This book is not just about discovering who killed a nasty old woman and why, it also looks at Brunitti’s relationship with his co-workers, not just the positive relationship with Vianello and Signorina Elettra, but also his antagonistic relationship with Scarpa. We also see a deeper look into police work in Venice, and why one wouldn’t want to be caught up in a crime in Venice.

What I found interesting was that the story at some point became less and less about justice for the maid, and more and more about the actions of the dead son.

Although you could easily enjoy this mystery if you’ve never read a previous Brunetti book, the delving into the relationship between Brunetti and his co-workers is much deeper if you’ve been reading along for awhile. Whose actions are truly immoral and whose actions are illegal? It’s a fine line Brunetti walks, and sometimes it’s hard to see what is good from what is right.
Rating: 8/10

Published by Penguin

Re-Read: September 2013

An unpleasant old woman is found murdered–bludgeoned to death in her apartment. It seems like an open-and-shut case of the badly-treated hired help having done it–especially when the woman is found fleeing the country and is hit by a trail and killed trying to escape the police.

The interesting thing about this story is the book pretty much opens with the shocking injustice, rather than ending with it, the way these books normally do.

It also takes a close look at Brunetti’s relationships with Scarpa, which is extremely negative. Brunetti doesn’t get along with Patta or Scarpa, but the relationship with Scarpa is far more negative and dangerous.

‘It’s because he hates you. I’m not important enough for him to hate. And he’s afraid of Elettra.’

Brunetti’s first impulse was to object to this interpretation, but he forced himself to think it through. He realized he found it unsatisfactory because it made Scarpa out to be less of a villain than he wanted him to be: guilty only of spite, not conspiracy.

And of course, events in at home make an appearance in the story.

I found this passage to particularly resonate.

…(B)y thinking eschatologically,’ he said: ‘Death. Judgement. Heaven. Hell.’

‘You don’t really believe in any of that, do you?’ asked an astonished Paola.

‘There are times when it would be nice,’ he said…

Yes, there are.
Rating: 7/10

Re-Read: November 2015

An unpleasant old woman is found murdered–bludgeoned to death in her apartment. It seems like an open-and-shut case of the badly-treated hired help having done it–especially when the woman is found fleeing the country and is hit by a trail and killed trying to escape the police.

But all is not as it seems, and eventually someone comes forward to protest that the woman who was killed trying to leave the country was innocent.

This book starts unusually, with Lieutenant Scarpa handling the case in the beginning, and we see both the venality and corruption of Scarpa, whom Brunetti has disliked from the beginning.

Especially disturbing is Scarpa’s interaction with the witness who comes forward.

(Brunetti) realized that he found it unsatisfactory because it made Scarpa out to be less of a villain than he wanted him to be: guilty only of spite, not of conspiracy.

Luckily, Brunetti takes over the questioning of the witness–and the tone changes.

“The money I had was for a job I’d bid for and intentionally bid too high, hoping I wouldn’t get it, because it was very boring: designing packaging for a new range of light bulbs. But they gave me the job, and it turned out to be so easy I felt a little bit guilty about being paid all that money. So I guess it was easier to give away than it would have been if I’d really had to work hard for the money.”

But we of course have Paola–and Brunetti’s interactions with her–to lighten things a little.

“There’s a chapter here,” she said, pointing at the page she’d been reading, “on the Seven Deadly Sins.”

Brunetti had often thought that it was convenient that there should be one for each day of the week, but he kept that thought to himself for the moment.

Again, don’t except the clean ending of American mysteries. Things don’t even seem to be clear in the Italian mysteries I’ve read–or perhaps that is true of Italy and not just mysteries. Whatever the case, I actually like that one never knows whether the bad guy / evildoer will get their comeuppance. It’s far more realistic that everything wrapped up neatly and getting what they deserve.
Rating: 7.5/10

Blood from a Stone (2005)

In Donna Leon’s fourteenth Commissario Guido Brunetti book, a vu cumpra is shot down on the street by hired assassins. Brunetti is (eventually) called to the scene, and attempts to unravel why a man selling fake handbags was shot in cold blood on the streets. The more Burnetti tries to discover who the man was and why he was killed, the murkier the case becomes, and soon government agencies are involved, which is never a good sign in Italy.

Although we see Vianello and Signora Elettra in this story, they don’t play as much of a role as they do in other books. Instead, the death leads to conflict at home for Brunetti, and his own worries over racism, both in himself and in his family.

As with most of the other books, even though Brunetti eventually leans what has happened, there is little true justice in the story. But unlike previous books, there is even greater confusion as to who is acting and what their motivations are.

Although my grandmother is on my case to read this series faster, I have a hard time reading one Brunetti book after another, primarily because his outlook on politics and even the police force is so bleak. Most of the time when he discovers who the murderer was, he is unable to act or bring about true justice. And in this book that is even more true than usual.

Don’t get me wrong, I am definitely going to continue this series, however, I don’t think I’ll devour these books one after the other, but will instead intersperse other books in between, so his bleak view of politics doesn’t get to me.
Rating: 7/10

Published by Penguin

Re-Read: September 2013

A young man–a vu cumpra–is assassinated on the streets a few days before Christmas. As always, Patta is up to his neck in the politics. And as always, this conflicts with Brunetti’s search for the truth and justice.

Weirdly, I’d remembered part of the mystery, which is inherently political, but I’d forgotten how much more political the story gets.

Which makes it excessively depressing.

There was a nice spot–the ex-priest Don Alvise. He was really a lovely man.

In his letter to Don Alvise…the bishop explained his motives by stating that ‘some of these people worship stones.’

Don Alvise wrote to his bishop, explaining that he saw no other course open to him than to renounce his vocation, for to continue to live it as he thought it should be lived was clearly to create perpetual strife with his superiors. In closing, he added, in the most respectful terms, that he would prefer the company of people who worshiped stones to that of people who had them in place of hearts.

I really did like Don Alvise.

He seemed a man who gazed in all he saw with approval and affection, who began every exchange with deep and abiding regard for the person in front of him.

That is a really hard thing to do.

Sadly, we don’t get to spend the whole story with Don Alvise, and the story as a whole is really dark and depressing. Probably because it seems so very likely.
Rating: 7/10

Re-Read: November 2015

A young African man–a vú cumprá, or street vendor–is shot down on the street in what seems to be a professional hit.

Brunetti, Vianello and Signorina Elettra attempt to discover why the man was murdered in cold blood, but at every turn they run into road blocks–and not just the usual issues of Patta wanting to make crime in Venice look low and to make Venice look safe.

We also meet Don Alvise, an ex-priest who is actually respected by Brunetti.

(T)o the public administration, these people were problems, while to Don Alvise, they were people with problems.

I think that is an issue that is not limited to Italy, but is something that should be considered by everyone.

There was also a passage that I liked especially, since it was similar to an attitude my grandmother held.

‘It didn’t matter to my parents what work a person did, whether they ran a bank or a workshop: the important thing was that they worked and that they thought their work was important.’

It doesn’t matter what work someone does, if they are doing their work to the best of their ability, they deserve respect.

This is a complex, complicated, and thought-provoking mystery. It looks (unsurprisingly, from the name of the book) at conflict diamonds from Africa, but instead of simply stating that conflict diamonds are bad, we have complex character whose story we never quite know, and whom we are never sure if they are good or bad–because there isn’t truly a position of good or bad in so many problems, but instead one side and another side.

I’m explaining badly what she shows so eloquently, which is one of the things that makes this story well-worth reading.
Rating: 8.5/10

Through a Glass, Darkly (2006)

I’ve been trying to slowly read–to savor–Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti books. However, being home sick I’ve read through several in the past couple days, and having finished Through a Glass, Darkly have only one published paperback left. (There are a couple of books that were not republished in the US, so I haven’t been able to read them either, but I wasn’t counting them.)

Vianello comes to Brunetti to ask for assistance in getting a friend out of trouble. Vianello’s friend is also an environmentalist, and was arrested at a protest. This seemingly unremarkable incident leads Burnetti to discover that things are not necessarily so clear at the glass factories in Murano, and a tangled series of events leads Brunetti to an even more tangled investigation.

As usual, I find it fascinating how the Brunetti’s case are–and are not–resolved. Even when Brunetti learns who the perpetrator is, true justice within the legal system does not always come with the revelation. Even more interesting are the facts and ideas that push Patta to encourage or discourage Brunetti for looking into various cases.

Brunetti continues to lean on Signora Elettra and Vianello, and continues to battle with Patta over what should be done regarding any particular case. What I find interesting is that Brunetti’s relationship with Patta is far more hostile here than it has been in the past. Either because Brunetti has grown tired of playing Patta’s games, or because Patta has realized that Brunetti has been playing with him. Rgardless, there was a higher level of hostility here that I was used to seeing.

Aside from that, the story was complex, and wandered around a bit before getting to the point, which I thought was interesting, although a bit of a red herring that seemed to fail–at least in my case. And as usual, Brunetti spent a lot of time eating–or forgetting to eat. Which as I’m home sick was frustrating to read, as I’d love to eat some of the dishes described within the covers, rather than chicken noodle soup.

As with the other books in this series, you should be able to read Through a Glass, Darkly, without having read any previous Brunetti books.
Rating: 7/10

Published by Penguin

Re-Read: October 2013

I actually started this weeks ago, put it back down, and then took a long time to get back to it.

Commissario Brunetti is asked, as a favor, to go out with Vianello, to help bail out an environmental activist (and friend of Vianello) who was arrested during protests. Things take a strange turn from there, when the man’s father-in-law shows up, yelling threats and imprecations at the no longer arrested man.

It seems like things will end there, but they don’t. And then, halfway through the book, there’s a murder.

Perhaps that’s why it took me so long to get through this book–it really doesn’t pick up until the second half of the book, when the murder finally happens.

Despite that, there were still many things I liked about the story, including the peeks at Venice.

He saw some people he recognized, but it was in a Venetian way of recognizing them, from walking past them on the street over the course of years, perhaps decades, without ever learning who they were or what they did.

Oddly, I’m familiar with that feeling. Over the years, I’ve seen many people in the halls at work, to the point that I recognize them, but don’t necessarily know their names. It’s an odd kind of knowing.

It’s not a bad story–not at all–but it’s also not one of my favorite stories.
Rating: 6.5/10

Re-Read: November 2015

This book does not open with murder–or even with much in the way of crime. It instead finds Brunetti and Vianello heading out to Mestre to help one of Vianello’s friends/acquaintances who had been arrested during environmental protests.

I haven’t said much in these reviews about food, which pervades these stories. Perhaps not quite to the degree that they do the Inspector Montalbano books, but there is a lot of food in these stories; don’t read them on an empty stomach.

But I also like the bits about the restaurants.

Before Brunetti could answer, a waiter came to the table. He had no pen or order pad, rattled off the menu and asked them what they’d like.

Navarro said the men were friends of his, which caused the waiter to recite the menu again, slowly, with comments, even with recommendations.

I have to say that I continue to enjoy the running joke of Brunetti looking like a cop.

When the coffee came, Brunetti said, ‘I’m looking for Paolo Bovo. His kid told me he was here.’

‘Paolo,’ the barman called towards a table at the back, where three men sat around a bottle of red wine, talking, ‘the cop wants to talk to you.’

Brunetti smiled and asked, ‘How come everyone always knows?’

The barman’s smile was equal in warmth to Brunetti’s, though not in the number of teeth exposed. ‘Anyone who talks as good as you do has to be a cop.’

‘A lot of people talk as well as I do,’ Brunetti said.

‘Not the ones who want to see Paolo,’ he answered.

I also appreciated this bit, because it speaks to things I know and have been told.

He looked over at the two workers, back at Assunta, and asked, ‘Masks?’

This time she shrugged but said nothing until she had led him out of the room and back into the courtyard. ‘They’re given two fresh masks every day: that’s what the law says. But it doesn’t tell me how to make them wear them.’

That is one of the truest statements about workplace safety I’ve ever read in a work of fiction I think.
Rating: 7.5/10

Suffer the Little Children (2007)

Brunetti is called to the hospital for an assault case, where it turns out that a citizen of Venice has been injured, only the assault isn’t what he was expecting, and draws Brunetti into a case of illegal adoptions.

I’d been saving Suffer the Little Children for months, since it’s the last Brunetti book out in paperback.

I’m sorry I waited.

I’ve been rather blue recently, so I thought this would be the perfect time to read a Commissario Brunetti book.

It wasn’t.

First of all, the quality of writing was fine. There were passages I loved, such as the following:

Because Paola had agreed to help him by asking around about (), Brunetti steeled himself and went down to the computer in the officers’ room, where he managed to surprise his colleagues by the ease with which he connected to the Internet and then typed in the letters for ‘()’, having to go back and correct only two typing errors.

Brunetti remains himself, dedicated to Paola and proud of his children, and sticking with his job, even if he finds it maddening at times.

And that’s where things fell apart for me.

mild SPOILERS (rot13)

Nygubhtu jr yrnea jung unccraf, abguvat vf erfbyirq va n fngvfsnpgbel znaare. Nyy xvaqf bs onq guvatf unccra–znal unccra gb vaabprag crbcyr–naq ab bar vf cebfrphgrq sbe nalguvat. Guvf vfa’g hahfhny sbe n Oeharggv obbx, ohg gur fcrpvsvpf bs gur vaibyirzrag va puvyqera jub jrer pbzcyrgryl vaabprag, naq gur ubeevoyr cuneznpvfg raqrq gur fgbel ba n pbzcyrgryl qrcerffvat abgr.

Abg jung bar arrqf jura nyernql fhssrevat sebz gur oyhrf.

END SPOLIERS

It was an OK book, but it was definitely not at all what I wanted to read. If I’d read it at another time, I would have liked it more.

If you have not read a Brunetti book, you should be able to start here without much difficulty. But I’m not sure this is a good place to start.
Rating: 6/10

Published by Atlantic Monthly Press

Re-Read: November 2015

Weirdly, I had no memory of reading this, and in fact thought I had not read it before.

I know why this is so, but it is still a strange feeling, to re-read a book and have no memory of the previous reading.

The book opens with a father putting his young son to bed–and then the Carabinieri raid that soon follows.

Be aware–this book looks at the selling of babies. Not the worst kind of selling you can think of, but the selling of babies to couples who can’t have them.

‘I see. So in each case, you …’ Brunetti tried to think what word he was supposed to use here Repossessed? Confiscated? Stole? – ‘got the baby and handed it over to social services.’

That’s when a man becomes a father, Brunetti knew, or at least he remembered that it was during that first year and a half that his own children had been soldered into his heart. Had either of them been taken from him, for any reason, after that time, he would have gone through life with some essential part of himself irreparably damaged. Before that conviction could fully take shape in his mind, Brunetti realized that, had either child been taken from him at any time after he first saw them, his suffering would have been no different than if he had had them for eighteen months, or eighteen years.

Let me be honest–I’ve read this series and the Inspector Montalbano series, and I’m still not sure I fully understand the difference between the police and the carabinieri.

As I’ve found re-reading this series, I keep coming upon bits that strike me as familiar or as part of my life.

Vianello said, ‘You know, I always used to think it was all right to buy this, so long as I didn’t read it. As though buying it was a venial sin and reading it a mortal.’ He looked at Brunetti, then again at the headlines. ‘But now I think I might have got it the wrong way round and it’s a mortal sin to buy because it encourages them to keep on printing it. And reading it’s only a venial sin because it really doesn’t make any impression on you.’ Vianello raised his glass and drank the rest of his wine.

I’ve felt that way for years about the local paper.
Rating: 8/10

The Girl of His Dreams (2008)

This has all of the elements I’ve come to expect of a Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery–death, intrigue, good food, and corrupt Italian politics.

This is not to say she presents all Italians as corrupt, after all we have Brunetti and Vianello on the side of the “good guys” working as best they can within a corrupt system. Corruption is more a way of life in Venice than an evil, nevertheless, corruption can lead to evil, and it is this evil that Brunetti seeks to stop.

The story starts with the death of Brunetti’s mother. No, not through murder, just an ordinary death–one that has been expected for quite awhile now. The priest who performed the graveside service–a friend of Brunetti’s brother–comes to Brunetti asking him to investigate a man who may be swindling Venetian parishioners. Because of his past, and his feelings about religion, Brunetti is actually more suspicious of the priest making the request than of the minister he is asked to investigate.

The heart of the story, however, is the mystery surrounding a the body of a young girl pulled from the river. Brunetti and Vianello are disturbed when no one comes forth to claim the body–the girl was entirely too young for someone not to miss her.

Both Paola and food play a part in this book, but either I’ve read too many Andrea Camilleri books in the past year, or he didn’t talk about food nearly as much as he has previously.

I hadn’t love the past several books in this series, but this book marks are return to the writing of some of the earlier book. As with most of this series, you should easily be able to read The Girl of His Dreams without having read any of the previous books in the series.
Rating: 8/10

Published by Atlantic Monthly Press

Re-Read: November 2015

The 17th Commissario Brunetti mystery opens with a funeral–Brunetti’s mother has finally died. This isn’t a cruel statement, just a recognition that she wasn’t the woman who raised two sons, but was instead made into a shell of herself by dementia.

The mystery starts when a priest–a friend of Sergio’s who said a prayer at the graveside–comes to ask Brunetti about a religious leader who has come to concern the priest.

In this, he comes to talk to her mother-in-law about religion and faith.

‘I’ve chosen to believe in God, you see, Guido. In the face of convincing evidence to the contrary and in the complete absence of proof – well, anything a right-thinking person would consider as proof – of God’s existence. I find that it makes life more acceptable, and it becomes easier to make certain decisions and endure certain losses. But it’s a choice on my part, only that, and so the other choice, the choice not to believe, is entirely sensible to me.’

‘I’m not sure I see it as a choice,’ Brunetti said.

‘Of course it’s a choice,’ she said with the same smile, as though they were talking about the children, and he’d just repeated one of Chiara’s clever remarks. ‘We’ve both been presented with the same evidence, or lack of evidence, and we each choose to interpret it in a particular way. So of course it’s a choice.’

Slightly different from Paola’s ideas of religion and faith.

Her voice deepened into disgust and she added, ‘It’s all so terribly American.’

‘Why American?’ Nadia asked, reaching for one of the fresh glasses the barman set on the counter.

‘Because they think it’s enough to feel things: they’ve come to believe it’s more important than doing things, or it’s the same thing or, at any rate, deserves just as much credit as actually doing something.

Sadly, I think that the Internet has only made that worse.

It is only later that we have the death–unrelated to the priest–that one expects from a murder mystery.

There are some heartbreaking passages.

In recent years, Brunetti had begun to see the death of the young as the theft of years, decades, generations. Each time he learned of the willed, unnecessary destruction of a young person, whether it was the result of crime or of one of the many futile wars that snuffed out their lives, he counted out the years until they would have been seventy and added up the plundered years of life. His own government had stolen centuries; other governments had stolen millennia, had stamped out the joy these kids might and should have had. Even if life had brought them misery or pain, it would still have brought them life, not the void that Brunetti saw looming after death.

And as always, passages that brought consideration.

Brunetti had often reflected on the meaning of the phrase ‘net worth’, especially as it was used in an attempt to calculate the wealth of a person. It usually included their investments, homes, bank accounts, possessions: only those things which could be seen, touched, counted. Never considered, as far as he could tell, were such intangibles as the good or ill will which followed a person through life, the love he gave or the love which was felt for him, nor, important in this instance, the favours he was owed.

A lot happens in this book, and I like that there are multiple threads occurring in Brunetti’s life, but as often happens, don’t expect those who do evil to necessarily get their comeuppance.
Rating: 7/10

About Face (2009)

Brunetti and Paola are invited to a formal dinner at her parent’s house. During the dinner, Brunetti is seated across from an arresting woman–her facial features are frozen–rumor says through too much plastic surgery. Brunetti is unsure how to take this woman, but when she begins to speak of books, he is suddenly lost in conversation. After the dinner, Brunetti’s father-in-law asks his opinion of the woman’s husband–and older man who wants the Comte to invest in his business dealings in China.

At work, Brunetti is asked to work with another officer to look into the death of a businessman, and if that businessman was a Venetian. The murdered man was involved in shipping, and after being caught for tax crimes, was informing the police of dealings with organized crime.

I love Brunetti. I love his attitude and Paola and his love of food (though there seemed to be fewer meals here than in previous books). As with previous books, crime in Venice is complicated and the government is so Byzantine that it is hard to see the differences between the small large crimes (the bribes that allow Venetians to get anything done) from the small large crimes, such as were being uncovered when the businessman was murdered.

As always, despite accepting the small crimes that seem a way of life in Venice, Brunetti continues to rail against the larger crimes and injustices.
Rating: 8/10

Published by Penguin

Re-Read: November 2015

I clearly remembered parts of this book, which meant I wanted to re-read it.

Guido and Paola are invited to a dinner at her parents’, and Guido meets a woman who captivates his attention.

‘I beg your pardon.’ Brunetti answered, stalling.

‘You beg my pardon because you don’t understand my question, or you beg my pardon because you spent the evening talking to Franca Marinello and ignoring everyone else?’

The vehemence of her question surprised Brunetti into bleating out, ‘But she reads Cicero.’

‘Cicero?’ asked an equally astonished Paola.

‘You realize, I hope, that you are married to the only woman in this city who would find that an entirely satisfactory explanation?’

Which is one more reason to love Paola.

And then a Carabinieri appears asking for Brunetti’s help in identifying a man who may or may not have been involved in a murder.

Things get complicated from there. But as always, it is the interactions between Brunetti and Paola or Brunetti and Vianello and his other co-workers that makes this story for me.

That and the discovery of what happened to Franca Marinello.
Rating: 8/10

A Question of Belief (2010)

It’s summer in Venice, and Brunetti wishes that all criminals would take a vacation with the rest of the country, to allow them to escape the oppressive heat. But even if the criminals were to take a break, two different problems that may or may not be crimes come to Brunetti.

First, Vianello’s aunt is worrying her family, because she seems to be giving her money to an astrologer of some sort. It’s her money, and she can do as she pleases, but Vianello doesn’t want her to be taken advantage of, so he asked Brunetti to help him–unofficially–look into what is happening. Meanwhile, an old schoolmate of Brunetti’s appears with questions that may or may not be related to a judge or might, possibly, be behaving in an unethical manner, and the clerk who may or may not be involved in what may or may not be bribery.

Sadly, the possible corruption of a judge is the least surprising thing to Brunetti; this is, after all, Venice, where bribery is a way of life, and Brunetti has to manipulate the Vice-Questore to effectively solve crimes. Despite this political and social commentary, the Venice described by Donna Leon–even in the heat of summer–is a place I want to visit. A place of beauty and timelessness, a city that goes on despite the fact it is slowly falling into the sea.

I want to visit that Venice.
Rating: 7/10

Published by Atlantic Monthly Press

Re-Read: November 2015

The 19th Commisarrio Brunetti book finds Guido and his family ready for their vacation in the mountains–and an escape to the oppressive heat and humidity of Venice.

Though the heat often drove people to violence, that was not the case this year. Perhaps there was some point where heat and humidity made the effort to throttle or maim too exhausting to be considered.

While he can think of only escape to the mountains, a friend shows him papers possibly linking a judge to delays in the court cases of the wealthy–delays that work in the favor of the judge.

Meanwhile, Vianello is worried about his aunt’s expensive interest in astrology, and asks Brunetti to help him look into the issues.

As always, the dialog between the characters is a delight.

‘You sure the heat hasn’t got to you and you’re maybe mixing it up with something you might have read in – oh, I don’t know – Chi?’

‘I don’t read Chi, either,’ Vianello said primly.

‘Nobody reads Chi,’ Brunetti agreed, for he had never met a person who would confess to doing so. ‘The information in the stories is carried by mosquitoes and seeps into your brain if you’re bitten.’

‘And I’m the one affected by the heat,’ Vianello said.

‘My daughter has an Iranian classmate: sweet young girl,’ he said, confusing Riverre, who had perhaps expected a response to his question. ‘Whenever she wants to express happiness, the expression she uses is, “Much, much, too, very.”’ He took another drink of water.

‘I’m not sure I follow you, sir,’ Riverre said, his words mirrored in his face.

‘It’s the only thing I can think of to say in response to the idea of Signorina Elettra taking over here: “Much, much, too, very.”’

And Brunetti remains unable to work computers.

(E)ven with the full name, all Google provided was a wide variety of products and offers to introduce him to young girls. Because he had one of his own at home, Brunetti did not feel in need of another, and so he spurned the cyber-proposals, tempting as others might have found them.

There are some terrible scenes, but within them are bit of humanity and love that show glimpses of beauty amidst the ugly and the horrible. (I’m thinking specifically of a bit with Rizzardi, who I have always liked, but this makes me like him even more.

The mysteries (I especially like it when there are multiple cases / investigations going on at the same time) were good, and I enjoyed the story.
Rating: 8/10

Drawing Conclusions (2010)

I love Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series.

Brunetti is a mostly honest police detective who works in a mostly dishonest and entirely complex system.

He is also in love with his wife and has two decent kids, and has co-workers who respect him.

Of course, everything isn’t perfect. His boss is a complete politician who cares only for how things look, and there are men on his squad who are dishonest, stupid, or both. And the system itself works against him, leading many to distrust him solely because he is a police officer, and most police are corrupt.

A young women returns home early from a weekend away to discover her neighbor dead on the floor. Because she sees blood, she calls the police, and Brunetti is one of the first on the scene. Marks on the woman’s skin make Brunetti wonder if there is more to this death than it seems.

One of the things I love about this series–besides Brunetti and Paola and the descriptions of food, is the atmosphere. Venice must be an amazing place to live, and as I believe Brunetti says in an earlier book, it’s important to appreciate what you have around you, which Brunetti very much does, when he takes time to stop and enjoy Venice.

Plus, there are Brunetti’s descriptions of human nature.

‘People don’t joke about things like this,’ she said sharply.

Brunetti was of a different mind entirely, having had plenty of evidence of the human capacity to joke at anything, no matter how terrible. It seemed to him that an entirely legitimate defence against looming horror that could afflict us. In this, he was a great admirer of the British; well, of the British who were, with their wry humour in the face of death, their gallows humor–they even had a word for it–defiant to the point of madness.

Another, entirely different passage, caught my eye.

A shaggy black dog stood on a table precariously balanced on a pile of cardboard boxes at the prow of the boat, its nose pointing forward as bravely as any figurehead. How dogs loved boats. Was it the open air and the richness of scents passing by? He couldn’t remember whether dogs saw at long distance or only very close, or perhaps it differed according to what breed they were. Well, there’d be no determining breed with this one: he was as much Bergamasco as Labrador, as much spaniel as hound. He was happy, that was evident, and perhaps that’s all a dog needed to be and all Brunetti needed to know about a dog.

If you have not read a Brunetti mystery, you could probably start here, but I highly recommend going back and starting at the beginning. The first book in the series is excellent, and you’ll enjoy spending time with Brunetti and his family.
Rating: 7/10

Published by Penguin

Re-Read: November 2015

And older woman is found dead in her apartment by her neighbor, and although her death is ruled a heart attack, something strikes Brunetti as wrong about the scene, and so he looks into the life of the woman, and why someone might want to do her harm.

Anna Maria had for years wanted to ask the older woman whether her refusal to have her hair dyed the obligatory red of women her age was another manifestation of her learned frugality or simply acceptance of how her white hair softened the lines of her face, adding to their dignity.

She looked down at the motionless woman, at the hand, the arm, the head. And she realized she would never get to ask her now.

This is another story that I don’t remember reading the first time around, and so enjoyed re-reading even more.

While looking into the life of the old woman, Burnetti finds suspicious everywhere, including a possible solution to a decades old mystery (not murder, just mystery).

‘Why would that be?’

‘Because he loves her,’ Brunetti said, remembering the way the old man looked at her. ‘That would be the obvious reason.’ Before Vianello could comment or object, Brunetti said, ‘One of the things Paola once told me is how prone we are to scorn the emotions of simple people. As if ours were better somehow.’

‘And love is love?’ Vianello enquired.

‘I think so, yes.’ Brunetti had still to fight against his reluctance to believe this wholeheartedly, as Paola seemed to do. He thought of it as one of his essential failures of humanity.

But we, of course, also get Signorina Elettra:

He explained what it was he wanted her to find, to which she answered, ‘Oh, wonderful, and I can do it legally this time,’ as delighted as if he had told her to take the rest of the day off and go home.

Uncertain how much she was baiting him, he said, ‘It’s always helpful for us to have new experiences,’ and hung up.

And Brunetti’s ruminations are always wonderful.

Usually people surprised us, he reflected, with the bad they did, when some dark impulse slipped the leash and brought them, and others, to ruin. And then how easy it became to find in the past the undetected symptoms of their malice. How, then, find the undetected symptoms of goodness?

I very much like the end of this story, of Brunetti’s reaction to the old man.
Rating: 8/10

Beastly Things (2012)

I love this series.

I love spending time in Venice with Commissario Brunetti and has family, I love all the characters he deals with, and I love the complexity of his family and co-workers.

It’s funny, but for the most part, the mysteries take a back seat to everything else that occurs in these books–the inevitable murder is simply the vehicle for spending time with Brunetti.

The body of a man is discovered in the canals, and though all identification has been stripped from the body, Rizzardi, the coroner notes his unusual disease, and this leads to the eventual discovery of his identity.

I had only one small complaint about the story–Signorina Elettra is known for her green and earth friendly ways, but I thought the coincidence of her complaint against beef unusually heavy-handed when the murder was going to take us into a slaughterhouse later. It felt like that part could have been left out entirely, as it really served only to foreshadow the later visit to the slaughterhouse.

And a word about the visit to the slaughterhouse: I’ve read a great deal about slaughterhouses but if you have not, the descriptions will be disturbing. Just so you’re forewarned.

One thing I am finding interesting is Brunetti’s changing relationships with Signorina Elettra’s computer hacking ways. He continues to admire her, for many reasons, but he is slowly coming to realize that much of what she doesn’t isn’t necessarily legal. But then so much of Venice seems to exist in a grey legal area, so it hardly seems like much to have her bending or breaking laws in the interest of justice.

As a geek, I have to say that I actually appreciate that Brunetti is technologically inept. First, this contrast with Signorina Elettra is something I enjoy, but also, his ineptness requires others to constantly explain the technology to him, and they do so in a way that also explains to the non-geek reader, but in a way that is real–it’s what I do all the time, although with more patience that some of Brunetti’s co-workers.

All in all, I continue to enjoy this series immensely.
Rating: 8/10

Published by Atlantic Monthly Press

Re-Read: November 2015

Although I had forgotten most of the mystery, the scenes of Brunetti and Vianello going into the slaughterhouse I remembered quite vividly–their horror and disgust at what they witnessed.

Again, Rizzardi continues to be one of my favorite characters, even though we usually only see him once a book.

‘Miracle?’ Brunetti asked.

‘In a manner of speaking,’ Rizzardi said. ‘Something wonderful.’ Rizzardi looked at his friend and must have seen something he liked, or trusted, for he went on, ‘If you think about it, the most ordinary things we do – picking up a glass, tying our shoes, whistling . . . they’re all tiny miracles.’

‘Then why do you do what you do?’ Brunetti asked, surprising himself with the question.

‘What?’ Rizzardi asked. ‘I don’t understand.’

‘Work with people after the miracles are over,’ Brunetti said for want of a better way to say it.

There was a long pause before Rizzardi answered. At last he said, ‘I never thought of it that way.’ He looked down at his own hands, turned them over and studied the palms for a moment. ‘Maybe it’s because what I do lets me see more clearly the way things work, the things that make the miracles possible.’

I will note one negative–it seems that Donna Leon doesn’t carefully track her plots and characters. I’ve noticed this previously, but reading the books one after the other brought it out more clearly.

For instance, this passage:

The driver reminded him about the seat belt, and Brunetti, thinking it foolish to use it for what would prove such a short trip, put it on nevertheless.

It’s as if the car accident he was in that killed a colleague never happened.

It’s just a small thing, but as I said, when reading the books one after the other, these inconsistencies stick out.

There are, of course, the thoughts and comments on human nature:

‘How stupid does he think we are?’ Vianello burst out.

‘Probably very,’ Brunetti said, almost without thinking. Being underestimated, he had learned – however unflattering it might be – always conveyed an advantage. If the person doing the underestimating wasn’t very bright to begin with – and Brunetti had a sense that Meucci was not – that increased the advantage.

This isn’t one of my favorite stories, but I do believe this book has both my favorite funeral scene (I know that sounds weird, but it’s true) and my favorite ending. So many of the funerals Brunetti attends are sparsely attended, or the dead seemed as if they would be quickly forgotten. This scene, however, was lovely in a heart breaking way (it brings me to tears, remembering it).
Rating: 8/10

The Golden Egg (2013)

I am starting, perhaps, to be disconcerted by how Brunetti and his family seem to have stopped aging. The first book was written in 1992, so twenty years have passed since that book, but time has not passed at the same rate for Brunetti. It’s most obvious with Chiara, who seems to have aged only six or seven years in the intervening time.

Donna Leon isn’t the first mystery author to have made her detective somewhat flexible in time, but I believe my preference is for characters to age over time–at least when they are written in the present and technology keeps pace with the times. It’s not a huge problem, but it’s slightly disappointing. I’d like to see Raffi and Chiara grow and mature–in fact, I’d really like to see what kind of woman Chiara becomes.

But that has nothing to do with this mystery.

Paola is disturbed by the death of a young man–a deaf mute–who “worked” at the local cleaner. No one seemed to know much about him, even his name, and so she asks Brunetti to learn what he can. And the more Brunetti learns, the stranger the story becomes, and the more disturbed Brunetti is by how a man could have grown up in Venice and yet exist no where in the system.

‘I wonder if it’s possible that he got to the point where his life was so bad, he couldn’t stand it any more?’

Brunetti thought about this and said, ‘He’d have to know it was bad, wouldn’t he?’

She turned her head to him sharply, mouth open. But before she could ask him what he meant, Brunetti saw her hear her own question and begin to consider it. Finally she said, ‘Of course. If that’s the only life he knew, then it was just that: life. Something worse would have to have happened, I suppose.’

That bit is quite chilling, considering the resolution of the mystery.

I admit that some of the mystery seems obvious to me, although that didn’t make some of the more disturbing parts both surprising and upsetting.

I enjoyed spending time with Brunetti, but I think the biggest tell about my feelings for the series come from the fact that this book was published last year, and I’ve only just now gotten around to reading it, and although the next book is on my wish list–it’s only on my wishlist, because I’m waiting for the price to drop.
Rating: 6/10

Published by Atlantic Monthly Press

Re-Read: November 2015

This mystery is good, but the resolution is so awful, it makes me dislike the whole book.

This, I think, sums up what I found so awful (don’t worry, not a spoiler):

‘I wonder if it’s possible that he got to the point where his life was so bad, he couldn’t stand it any more?’

Brunetti thought about this and said, ‘He’d have to know it was bad, wouldn’t he?’

She turned her head to him sharply, mouth open. But before she could ask him what he meant, Brunetti saw her hear her own question and begin to consider it. Finally she said, ‘Of course. If that’s the only life he knew, then it was just that: life. Something worse would have to have happened, I suppose.’

That’s heartbreaking.

As usual, there are the comments about Italy:

‘He also has a job as a regional counsellor.’

‘Doing what?’ Brunetti asked, then, remembering that he was talking about a political position, changed it to, ‘Meant to be doing what?’

But there remain comments that I still should remember.

Brunetti was about to snap back at him when he recalled the mantra Paola had been beating into his head for two decades: ‘This is the only power this man has, and it is the only power he will ever have in his life. Either you show him that you respect it, or he will cause you more trouble than it’s worth.’

Funny that Paola would be the one to recognize that.

I’ll skip the rating on this, because I can’t separate the feelings the story evoked from the writing.

By its Cover (2014) Donna Leon

At last, we reach the books I had not yet read.

The 23rd book finds Brunetti called to investigate the theft of both books and pages cut from old and rare books.

Old books had always filled Brunetti with nostalgia for centuries in which he had not lived.

‘You get any fingerprints from those books?’ he asked, not having had time to speak to Vianello before now.

Vianello took a sip of his wine and said, ‘I’ve never seen those two lab guys so close to tears, both of them.’

‘Why?’ Brunetti asked, and took a bite of his egg and tuna.

‘You ever think of how many people touch a book in a library?’ Vianello set his glass down and picked up a sandwich.

‘Oddio,’ Brunetti said.

This story, of course, gives us plenty of chances to see Brunetti (and Paola)’s love of books.

(W)e started talking.’

‘About his book?’

‘No,’ she said adamantly. ‘I don’t read.’

Brunetti nodded in understanding, as if this were the most normal thing in the world.

‘We talked about things. Real things.’

Take that, books, Brunetti thought.

As always, Brunetti says / thinks something that tugs at me.

Much as he chided himself for his unmanly behaviour, he could never overcome the continual fear that – in this most peaceful of cities – Paola was somehow in peril the instant she was out of his sight.

I liked this book, not just because it is about books, but because the mystery was good and the characters were so very real.
Rating: 8.5/10

Published by Atlantic Monthly Press

Falling in Love (2015) Donna Leon

And now, I have read and re-read all the published Donna Leon, Commisario Brunetti books.

We return once again to the Opera and Flavia Petrelli. La Fenice is putting on Tosca, and Flavia has the lead role. Brunetti and Paola meet her after the opening night, and invite her to dinner–at Paola’s parents–on Sunday. It is there that Brunetti notices that Flavia is on edge, and she eventually admits that she has an unknown admirer who is frightening her.

There is far less mystery here, and more interplay and conflict between the characters–Signorina Elettra is finally actively in opposition to Lieutenant Scarpa–but I was totally okay with that. I like this series because of the characters–the mysteries are almost secondary.

As usual, Patta is Patta, but he is far less horrible here than he was initially, and in fact Brunetti actually thinks some positive things about him.

Colleagues of his in other cities and provinces continually told him of the sort of men and women they worked for, hinting – though never daring to say it outright – that some of them had given their allegiance to an institution other than the State, something that could not be said of the Vice-Questore.

Patta had given his, Brunetti had discovered over the years, to his family. Without reservation, without reflection or restraint: Brunetti liked him for it. Patta was vain and lazy, selfish and at times foolish, but these were not active failings. There was a great deal of bluster in the man, but there was no deep malice: that was left to Lieutenant Scarpa.

There was also a very interesting passage:

‘Isn’t it interesting,’ (Paola) said in the voice she used for speculation, ‘that longing is so often expressed in physical terms: hunger, thirst, physical safety?’

‘What should we long for instead?’ Brunetti asked. ‘Universal peace?’

‘That’s not what I’m saying,’ Paola insisted. ‘I find it interesting that longing is usually expressed in physical terms rather than in spiritual or intellectual ones.’

‘It’s more immediate,’ Chiara said. ‘You suffer from physical need: water, food, sleep. You feel it.’

‘You suffer more from the lack of freedom or peace of mind, I’d say,’ Brunetti offered.

Raffi continued with his cake, as if he found it far more interesting than this sort of speculation.

‘But physical pain hurts,’ Chiara insisted. ‘Nobody dies of a broken heart.’

Paola placed a hand on her own anguished heart. She reached across the table and grabbed at Brunetti’s hand. ‘Guido, we’ve raised a savage.’

I’ve noted in the past that physical pain tends not to bother me much (when I broke my ankle, I told the ER nurse I only rated my pain about a 4 or so) but I have found myself prostrated by mental and emotional pain. So I’d say that I could not disagree more with Chiara’s statement.

Was this one of the better mysteries? No, it honestly wasn’t. Did I enjoy it thoroughly? Yes, I honestly did.

If you’re looking for a complex mystery, or have never read the Commissario Brunetti seires, don’t start here. But if you’re looking to spend time with characters, and already know Brunetti and Paola and Signorina Elettra, then it’s a pleasant time spent.
Rating: 7.5/10

Published by Atlantic Monthly Press

The Waters of Eternal Youth (2016)

The-Waters-of-Eternal-YouthThis is the 25th book in the Guido Brunetti series, which shouldn’t surprise me, yet somehow does.

Brunetti remains as astute as ever, with many sharp little comments on life.

Contessa Lando-Continui had always been polite to him, at times even warm, but he had always wondered if he were being treated as an appendage of his wife and mother-in-law. Did most wives feel this way? he wondered.

Not that he doesn’t have his blind spots.

When the maid came around again to offer a second helping, Paola caught her husband’s eye. He smiled back and shook his head at the maid’s offer as if he had meant to do it, failing to persuade Paola but managing to convince himself.

The mystery comes when a friend of his mother-in-law’s asks him to look into an incident that caused her granddaughter to be seriously harmed.

We see Rizzardi and of course Signorina Elettra, and Paola and the children.

Is there anyone in the Records Office who might be able to help?’

‘Are you talking about one of my patients, if I might call them that?’ the pathologist began. ‘Or one of the patients in the wards?’ If possible, Rizzardi’s voice had grown even more friendly, as if he were enjoying the exchange.

‘Someone who was taken to the hospital,’ Brunetti answered. ‘And who left.’

‘Why don’t you simply ask the Vice-Questore’s secretary to break into the system?’ Rizzardi asked affably. ‘Unless by now you’re able to do it yourself.’

‘Ettore,’ Brunetti said, ‘I think you’re not supposed to know about that. Or at least talk about it.’

Although there are many themes about Italy and Venice that have been repeated throughout the series, occasionally, something new is dropped in.

‘I remember the first time I went to dinner in London,’ she said. ‘Everyone at the table was English, except me, and after the first course I realized that only one person spoke at a time. When that person finished, someone else said something, and everyone waited until he or she was finished before commenting. Individually.’ She smiled, then laughed, at the memory.

Obviously English. Certainly not any Americans from MY family.

Is this one of the best Brunetti mysteries? No. But it was comforting and lovely to be in Venice with Brunetti and all the others.
Rating: 7/10

Published by Atlantic Monthly Press

Earthly Remains (2017)

The 26th Brunetti mystery sees nothing of Brunetti’s children, and very little of Paola. Although there is of course food.

It seems like the corruption in Venice has finally gotten to Brunetti. In order to save Pucetti from himself, Guido pretends to fall ill, and then is unable to stop the chain of events that puts him into the hospital.

‘I can’t stand it any longer, doing what I do,’ Brunetti surprised himself by saying. ‘I had to fake all this and end up here in the hospital, with doctors prodding and poking at me, just because I have to protect the people I work with from reacting to the work they do.’

So Brunetti takes his doctors advice–and the advice and prodding of Paola–and gets out of the city for awhile. He ends up spending his days on the laguna, with the man who keeps the house where Brunetti is staying, and the physicality of it is good for his spirit and soul.

Seeing the perfect balance of his motion, back and forth, back and forth, hands effortlessly in control of the oar, Brunetti thought that no man his own age or younger would be able to row like this because he would spoil it by showing off. The drops from the blade hit the water almost invisibly before the oar dipped in and moved towards the back. His father had rowed like this.

If you’re looking for the mystery to start from the get-go, this is not the book for you. This book is for long-time fans of Brunetti who wonder how he hasn’t broken prior to this, and don’t mind spending days on the laguna.

When Brunetti remarked on the generosity of the fishermen they met, Casati said fishermen were always generous, far more so than farmers. To Brunetti’s question, he explained that fishermen knew their catch would last no more than a day, so it was easy for them to give it away: give it away or watch it rot. Farmers, however, could store what they reaped and so had a tendency to keep it or even hoard it.

Because of that, it’s almost a shock when the death does come, even though you know someone is going to be murdered, because this is a murder mystery.

It’s always the odd, unpredictable things that set us off, Brunetti thought. Grief lies inside us like a land mine: heavy footsteps will pass by it safely, while others, even those as light as air, will cause it to explode.

As I said, this book is more about Brunetti than about the murder that eventually comes, so I wouldn’t recommend it to a first time reader searching for a police procedural, but it really is a good story. It also reminded me a great deal of Through a Glass, Darkly and Death in a Strange Country, with the look at pollution and corruption.
Rating: 8/10

Published by Atlantic Monthly Press

 

 

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