Mystery features life in Venice, death in a glass factory
Jun 04, 2006
Reviewed by Maxine Clarke
Through a Glass, Darkly
By Donna Leon
Atlantic Monthly Press. 256 pp. $23
Donna Leon's 15th book to feature Commissario Guido Brunetti is, as we have come to expect, a superb evocation of life in Venice - with crime somewhere in the background.
Leon's books are short. This one is barely more than 250 pages, and the murder does not happen until halfway through. Though the mystery of who and why is known by the end, the details of the process of apprehending the criminal are not addressed. Nor, when the body is found, is there any need for gruesome depiction of the event - although the death was a gory one. Yet the story is no less involving: an object lesson in minimalism.
The evocation of Brunetti's life as a senior policeman, husband and father in this, the most beautiful city in the world, is so confident and assured that one is drawn in from the opening two paragraphs - a description of springtime - and does not emerge until the last few pages, a lovely vignette about a Venetian boatman.
In between, the theme is the contrast between new and old. Environmentalists are agitating about the effects on fragile Venice of pollution from the industrial plants of Marghera. But what of the older threat from the traditional glassmaking factories of Murano? Is there any truth to the apparently delusional obsession of night watchman Signor Tossini, who is convinced that his young daughter's illness results from activities there? The plot is a showcase for descriptions of the process of glassblowing and the beauty of the finished product.
No Leon book would be complete without the background of political corruption and bureaucracy for which Italy is famed - though they are mere hints in this particular outing, rather than major plot elements. Official police investigations, so riddled with the politics of necessity, get nowhere. Brunetti's approach - essentially simple interest in his fellow man - provides solutions.
Brunetti is one of the most attractive policemen in crime fiction today. He is of no fashion or era - this book, for example, features his interest in Dante's Inferno (including some lovely passages of translation and observation) and in nautical charts. He has no need of the Internet or Interpol, though GPS crops up and the cell phone is no less ubiquitous in Leon's Venice than everywhere else in the world. (I learn, to my delight, that a cell phone is called "baby telephone" - telefonini - in Italian; picking up occasional colloquialisms is one of the many pleasures of reading a Donna Leon book. )
As usual, the tension between Brunetti and his boss, Vice-Questore Patta, provides amusement: Brunetti has to anticipate Patta's attempts to block any police work that does not directly fit into his own plans for self-advancement. Patta's assistant - and my favorite character - the mysterious Signora Elettra, has a relatively minor role in the new book, though she is her usual efficient self and still seems to be the only person in the police department who has a computer or knows how to use it. (Brunetti continues, in 2006, leaving a note on a colleague's desk to ask to see him the next day, rather than sending an e-mail. ) There is, however, an unusual tension this time between Elettra and Brunetti, which I hope will be developed in a future book.
Brunetti's family is not center stage in this novel, either, though wife Paola (in my opinion the least successful character) is - again as usual - holding down a job as a senior academic, has complete empathy with her children, cooks fantastic meals from scratch, does not offer a word of reproach when her husband forgets to come home to eat them, and still has time to attend gallery openings. I suppose paragons like Paola exist, but I haven't met any. I did smile in recognition, however, when Paola calls Brunetti at work, and he, being in the middle of a train of thought, momentarily forgets who she is.
I struggle to think of other series authors who are as dependable as the excellent Leon: Hazel Holt springs to mind. Holt's books, also short and pared-down, combine a common-sense investigator with restrained yet pointed social comment, and each one is reliably up to the standard of the last. Leon's have an additional dimension beyond the immediate solution to the crime. I finish a Leon book feeling not only that I have read a satisfying detective story, but that I know what life in Venice is like for the ordinary people who live and work there.
Maxine Clarke is an editor for the science journal Nature. She can be reached at http://petrona-maxine.blogspot.com. [Correction: http://petrona.typepad.com]
Published in the Philadelphia Inquirer 4 June 2006.