by Donna Leon
Arrow Books £8.99
We are now some 26 books into the career of Commissario Guido Brunetti, the Venetian police detective created by American-born, Venice-based Donna Leon, and the strain is beginning to tell on him. Having faked a heart attack to prevent an idealistic junior officer from assaulting a particularly obnoxious suspect, the increasingly disillusioned Brunetti decides to accept the sick leave to which he is entitled and take refuge on an island in the Venice lagoon. There he makes the acquaintance of an old friend of his father, Davide Casati, the caretaker of the villa in which he is staying, a loner, mourning the death of his wife, and of the bees he has been tending on the lagoon’s remote marshes.
Then, after a sudden storm, Casati goes missing, and his drowned body is found attached to the anchor of his boat off the cemetery island where his wife was buried. Abandoning his recuperation, Brunetti finds himself investigating a 20-year-old accident in which Casati was involved, and eventually uncovering the corruption that Casati believed was the cause of the loss of both wife and bees.
Leon is no Mankell or Rankin; she is more in the tradition of Simenon. Her books are modest in length, and her protagonist a happily married family man with none of the psychological scars and character defects of Wallander or Rebus. But though perhaps lightweight by comparison with those of some of her contemporaries, it is a mistake to dismiss Leon’s books as undemanding policiers. She has a deep love for Venice and great empathy with the dwindling population of a city continually ravaged by nature, by tourism, by the corruption of politicians and by the (sometimes literally) poisonous effects of organised crime.
She portrays the inhabitants of the region – where accents and dialect can identify individuals living just a few miles apart – with sympathy and understanding, and she is clearly angry at the stupidity and venality that is slowly destroying the city and its surroundings, and a whole way of life. She is realistic, too. Brunetti may usually solve the mysteries he faces, but in the wake of the self-serving, criminal, corrupt practices of the Italian political and social establishment, he rarely sees justice done, a fact that contributes to his ever-growing dissatisfaction with his work.
Leon is an excellent writer, capable of fine descriptive detail, an ability to draw convincing characters and considerable psychological insight. She has weaknesses, though. The mysterious, enigmatic, computer hacking Signora Elletra, secretary to Brunetti’s boss, and a kind of benevolent deus ex machina about whom we have learnt almost nothing in the course of the series, is simply too convenient a tool and hardly credible a character. It’s difficult to believe someone as intelligent and otherwise capable as Brunetti would still find it hard to master the intricacies of computers and Google. And sometimes his family life – aristocratic superwoman wife and two delightful teenage children – seems just too idyllic to reflect any world with which I am familiar.
But in her, and Brunetti’s, despair at the failings of the society he serves Leon’s books manage to rise far above the average of the genre, and each new addition to the series is a welcome one.