Spring: time to shake off the winter doldrums and begin to focus on life’s pleasures. This is the perfect time for a trip to Venice, via any one of Donna Leon’s books featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti.
Becoming familiar with Brunetti, his college professor wife, Paola, and their two teenage children, Raffi and Chiara, is the most pleasurable way to learn about Venice – short of going there. Not only is Brunetti a brilliant sleuth, but as he threads his way through the city unraveling crime, readers soak in the Venetian milieu and discover the cultural peccadilloes that keep Venice ticking.
Born in New Jersey, Leon moved to Venice 25 years ago. Her unique perspective as an “outsider” makes her more aware of social nuances that a native writer might miss. Then again, living in the city gives Leon a special insight to the Venetian mindset that most tourists wouldn’t encounter or notice.
While all 22 books in the Brunetti mystery series are interesting, I picked “A Question of Belief” to review because it features two mysteries that depict the best and worst aspects of Venice. As the story opens, the commissario sits staring out the window of his office. It’s sweltering – inside and out! He wouldn’t mind if someone walked in and poured a cold bucket of water over his head. It’s August, when every sensible Venetian goes on vacation to get away from the oppressive heat and humidity. Brunetti plans to make his escape in a few days, taking his family to the mountains, where they can hike in comfort during the day and will need to put on a sweater as soon as the sun sets. In the meantime, he’s desperately longing for the slightest breeze.
Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello shuffles into the office, looking worse for wear. All the books have a standard cast of characters, and he is the man Brunetti depends on most to help him solve crimes. “His hair, slicked down by perspiration … the skin of his face seemed puffy, especially around the eyes,” Brunetti noticed. But it’s not just the heat that has affected Vianello’s appearance and mood. He appears worried. The two quickly fall into a conversation about which Italian police stations have air conditioning. Then, Vianello turns the conversation to superstitious beliefs, asking for Brunetti’s opinion about people who believe in horoscopes and fortune tellers.
It seems an odd subject, until Brunetti learns Vianello is concerned about his elderly aunt, Anita, who appears to have fallen into the clutches of a scam artist. Her adult children have discovered that Anita recently withdrew thousands of Euros from the bank; she won’t say why, but they suspect it may be going to any one of the many “card readers,” now popular on Italian television.
Leon’s portrayal of Vianello’s emotional involvement with a member of his extended family may appear over-the-top to many American readers, until we realize that families in Venice have both geographic and emotional bonds, with everyone from parents to second cousins, which we don’t have here in America. Relatives look after one another in a way we might find oppressive, but that works in their tight-knit society. Leon drives this point home in all of her mysteries, especially through the interactions between Brunetti’s immediate and extended family. Consequently, it isn’t surprising when Brunetti agrees to help Vianello discover exactly who is helping themselves to Anita’s money, even if no crime has been committed.
Within the first chapter, Leon sets the stage for the first mystery and also delivers an important tip for travelers. Never visit Venice in August, unless having a heat stroke is part of your itinerary!
The second mystery revolves around Venice’s biggest societal problem – corruption – or “Governo Ladró,” as the Venetians say. This case comes to light when Toni Brusca, an old schoolmate of Brunetti’s, brings a certain file to his attention. While the Italian court system is notoriously slow moving, it seems Judge Coltellini has the perpetual habit of delaying cases that her friends would rather not see come to trial. Some cases linger for months and years, only to be postponed again if they resurface. Furthermore, the signature of a lowly court clerk, Aralo Fontana, appears on each of these delays.
Here, Brunetti turns to Signorina Elettra for help. In her official capacity, she is the secretary to Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta. He cares more about politics than crime solving; and, unknown to him, the Italian beauty who graces his outer office is a computer whiz. With a few clicks on the keyboard, she unlocks personal and corporate secrets. And if that doesn’t work, she uses her spider web of “connections” to get the information Brunetti needs. She quickly uncovers an interesting fact about Fontana. He lives in an exclusive part of Venice that most people in his salary range could not afford. And his rent is mysteriously 10 times less than the going rate.
In the midst of solving crimes, Leon teaches us the layout and architecture of Venice as Brunetti and Vianello move about. Having to navigate through swarms of tourists is a daily annoyance for local residents; but, not nearly as frustrating as having to go farther afield to find a decent fish market or vegetable stand because merchants around the Basilica di San Marco profit more from selling tourist trinkets than they do selling tomatoes.
Speaking of food, Leon loves to torture readers by describing her characters’ meals in vivid detail. This is when I grow envious of the amount of fresh fish in their diets and start searching the Internet for airfares to Italy. Breakfast for Venetians is small – a pastry or roll, with coffee. However, lunch – their main meal of the day – is an eating extravaganza, which takes place from 1 to 4 p.m. This is one lunch Paola prepared for her family: “prosciutto and figs and then pasta with fresh peppers and shrimp.” Bread, wine and dessert aren’t mentioned but were served, perhaps because those are somewhat akin to condiments here – no meal is complete without them. But whether Leon is reciting one of Brunetti’s home cooked or restaurant meals, you’ll find yourself wishing you were sitting at the table with him.
Sadly, Brunetti’s vacation is put on hold when Fontana, the court clerk, is found murdered outside his apartment. With Vianello’s help, they track down his killer and determine where Anita is spending her money. But if you think you know the guilty parties halfway through the book, think again! “A Question of Belief” is an excellent example of how Leon weaves twists and turns into her plots, confusing the best arm-chair sleuths. Not to worry, even if you don’t guess the “who and why,” you’ll finish the book with a better understanding of life in Venice, and with a huge craving for a decent plate of antipasto.