Donna Leon paints a picture of murder
by Donna Leon
Atlantic Monthly Press 288 pages
$10.20 paperback $11.99 Kindle $13.75 Nook
Police procedurals, sometimes plodding compared to their PI and amateur sleuth cousins, usually follow a cop’s methodical investigation. In Donna Leon’s Beastly Things, Commissario Guido Brunetti moves one step at a time as he seeks the killer of a kindly veterinarian whose body is found floating in a Venice canal, but it’s Brunetti’s ruminations on official corruption, the human condition, treatment of animals, food and life in the Italian island city that make it a satisfying journey and, at times, a disturbing one.
Leon’s fans will enjoy this 21st installment that revisits familiar characters, although the book can be an easy introduction to the series (as it was for me). All you need to know to enjoy the novel you’ll learn along the way.
The body pulled from the canal was not immediately identified by the medical examiner except to recognize the deceased’s deformity–extraordinarily thick shoulders and neck–caused by a rare disease. Ultimately Brunetti identifies the victim as Andrea Nava and learns that he lives not in Venice but in Mestre, a nearby mainland city thus setting up a minor jurisdictional confrontation, almost obligatory in cop novels. In an interview with Nava’s wife, Brunetti learns that she was separated from her husband, that her husband was having sex with another woman and that in addition to his veterinary practice, he worked part time in a slaughter house.
The commisario follows up these leads, unconvinced that Nava’s wife had anything to do with his stabbing death. On the trail of evidence, Brunetti invariably stops off in a café for coffee or wine and a snack with his assistant, Inspector Vianello and goes home for lunch with his wife.
As I read this I realized I was looking look for clues; I read mysteries expecting the plot to proceed apace or reasonably so. (Even Poirot keeps the little grey cells moving.) I try to figure out who did it before the detective does. To Brunetti, (or Leon) life itself is as important as the case. We learn Brunetti is not the troubled loner of many detective stories but has a good home life and easy relationship with his wife. His rich, influential in laws are another story, but they don’t figure heavily in this novel.
He’s also sensitive. When he interviews Nava’s wife he delays telling her the bad news, hoping she will figure it out first. His sensitivities–and vulnerabilities–show up clearly in a gruesome slaughter house scene, and after, when Brunetti discusses the values of vegetarianism with his family.
You could call him cynical. He’s an Italian cop; he sees officialdom as a less than ethical system but he manages to go with the flow without compromising himself. Or so it seemed in this installment of Leon’s series. The system he’s a part of is explained in an internal dialog Brunetti has when he’s called into the office of his boss, Vice-Questor Giuseppe Patta. His boss’s decade-long stay in his position was,
“in anomalous defiance of the rule that high police officials were transferred every few years. Patta’s tenacity in his post had puzzled Brunetti until he realized that the only policemen who were transferred away from cities where they combated crime were those who met with success, especially those who were successful in their opposition to the Mafia.”
Brunetti and Vianello visit Nava’s veterinary office then the slaughterhouse where they meet the boss and his attractive assistant. The detective pair also interview the vet who worked at the slaughterhouse before Nava and they ultimately uncover a dirty secret.
Leon’s prose is effective and her occasional figurative language imaginative. When Brunetti finally tells Nava’s wife that he’s dead, she faints in her chair.
“…her head fell against the back of the chair. Then, like a sweater placed carelessly on a piece of furniture, she slithered to the floor at their feet.”
Humor here is of the nod-your-head-and-smile variety, often reflecting Brunetti’s foibles, such as when he visits a hospital.
“A lifetime of good health had done nothing to counter the effects of imagination; thus Brunetti was often subject to the attacks of diseases to which he had not been exposed and of which he displayed no symptoms.”
Brunetti is vaguely reminiscent of Inspector Jules Maigret, commenting on social conventions, popping into convenient cafes for a glass of wine and exploring the fascinating corners of his native city. Rather than Paris, Venice is Brunetti’s beloved home and the city quickly becomes a character in the book. Brunetti ponders Venice’s palazzos, churches, bars, and even the bothersome portable vendor stalls that block sidewalks. In Beastly Things, Leon combines the city’s canals along with its natives, its tourists and its bureaucrats to paint a detailed, intriguing portrait.
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