BOOK REVIEW: Homage to Donna Leon – JULY 2016

Jane TompkinsBy Jane Tompkins

I have just finished four novels by Donna Leon, author of the Commissario Guido Brunetti crime series: The Waters of Eternal Youth (her latest, terrific), Falling in Love, the fairly recent (and excellent) Beastly Things, and Drawing Conclusions, which I’d read before but couldn’t put down. Against all odds, though she has now written twenty-five Guido Brunetti novels, age has not staled the allure of her ultra-civilized detective nor dulled the fascination of the characters who surround him.

Unlike American detective heroes, who rely for their appeal on physical prowess, street smarts, and the ability to endure pain, Brunetti’s attraction depends on his psychological subtlety, intelligence, and responsiveness to pleasure and beauty. Instead of a diet of wisecracks, beatings, and narrow escapes, with the commissario one enjoys delicious meals, innumerable espressos, frequent glasses of prosecco, the enchantments of Venice, and interviews with perpetrators and witnesses that are conducted with a degree of complexity and refinement seldom achieved outside the novels of Henry James.

Brunetti is a loyal friend to his ever-helpful colleague, Vianello, a devoted husband to his aristocratic wife, Paola—whose wit is even drier and whose criticisms of the government are even more savage than his. A great appreciator of beauty in architecture and in women, kind to the vulnerable, sympathetic to the poor, and sensitive to the sufferings of others, Brunetti is the opposite of what we have come to expect of police detectives, in part because he is the product of a different culture. He has time to go for a walk when he needs to clear his head, time to eat lunch with a colleague or friend—he often goes home to a mouth-watering meal prepared, somewhat incredibly, twice a day, by his professor wife—time to notice that spring has arrived in Venice, and time to read at night. He doesn’t watch TV. And when Brunetti reads, it is Xenophon or Herodotus—nothing A.D.

Brunetti never kills anyone, never gets into fights, never even raises his hand, or his voice. His chief and only weapon is a razor-sharp irony, deployed in guises so titillating and amusing that one never tires of watching him perform. It is Leon’s signature as a writer, fueled by outrage at the ways in which government and business manage to defraud, despoil, and defund the people of Venice and their beautiful city. One learns to savor the cleverness of the campaigns of sarcasm she mounts against the corrupt institutions of Italian government, and to relish the blistering scorn Brunetti aims at the greedy, mendacious, and self-aggrandizing habits of Italy’s industrial and commercial institutions.

Damage to the environment from chemical spills, toxic waste disposal, air pollution, and overpopulation are among his targets (Brunetti and his friends constantly decry the masses of tourists that besiege the city from May to October), along with the prostitution of Eastern European immigrant women, the living conditions of immigrants from Africa, and the conditions under which animals are slaughtered for human consumption. Financial shenanigans of every conceivable description are omnipresent.

The characters Brunetti loves to hate—like his superior, Vice Questore Giuseppe Patta, whose narcissism and cowardice obstruct the search for justice—as well as those he loves to love—like the proud, perfectly dressed Signorina Elettra Zorzi, without whose computer expertise and extensive connections he couldn’t function for a minute—grow only more entertaining as the series unfolds.  No matter who you are, in Venice, knowing someone who knows someone is the only way to get anything done.

Consequently, Brunetti himself is constantly implicated in illegal, or extra-legal, activity. There is no firewall the Signorina Elettra does not breach on his behalf, no connection she will not use to further his interests. And Brunetti uses his own connections: his wife, Paola, a Henry James scholar, is daughter to the Count and Countess Falier, whose influence, in the city and beyond, knows no bounds. Like it or not, Brunetti is a participant in the economy of rule-breaking and favors that make the Venetian world go round.

As often as not, the criminals Brunetti apprehends slip through the cracks, either because of police or state corruption, or because, in the final reckoning, they are victims as well as perpetrators and so he lets them go. Justice, in the world of these novels, is not a concept that can be easily delineated or straightforwardly applied. The question that goes unanswered is, can Brunetti  justify profiting from his advantages in the pursuit of justice, since every corner he cuts, is being cut—analogously—by the polluters, the pimps, and the bribe-takers whose activities are ruining the state?

In the stories Donna Leon tells, the daily texture of life is what counts: the risotto ai funghi one eats for lunch, the beauty of Santa Maria della Salute, the daffodils that decorate the office, the camaraderie among the uniformed men. These amenities depend upon the functioning of the society whose laws the commissario strives to uphold and maintain; the mystery is how, in the face of the corruption everywhere rampant, people can still buy and sell flowers, bake a brioche, or prepare a risotto for someone’s lunch. This question, too, is never answered, but in the course of posing it Donna Leon offers one of the most exquisite and gratifying reading experiences one is ever likely to have.~


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