Completed: Dressed for Death

Venice in February 2013

Dressed for Death
Donna Leon
1994, U.S.

Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza and Ally of Snow Feathers are hosting Venice in February again this year, and although I didn’t have any particular plans for Venetian-set reading this year, I thought it as good an excuse as any to pick up another Commissario Brunetti mystery. This is the third I’ve read, and the third in the series–I’m going in order, but I don’t know if it’s particularly necessary–although, I don’t think I would start with this one. Truthfully, when it comes to most mystery series, and this one is no exception, once you’ve read a few you don’t find much new to say about subsequent entries. However, that won’t keep me from reading more of Leon’s mysteries, for the real appeal of the series is the setting. I’ve only ever spent two days in Venice, but I am transported back every time I pick up a Brunetti story.

Leon’s mysteries don’t seem to tie up neatly the way so many other mystery novels tend to do. It was only reading this one, however, that it dawned on me that this makes them truer to real life than other detective novels. In real life, when a suspect is taken to trial we don’t always know for sure that they are guilty, or we may, but the evidence may not be sufficient. A good lawyer may dismantle the prosecution’s case (or defense’s), allowing the jury to reach a verdict that isn’t actually true, but only as true as they can find it to be based on what they’ve been presented. Most mysteries don’t let us see this, but in Brunetti’s Venice, it is made plain for the reader that real life isn’t clean and neat, that politics and connections may trump truth. It is tempting to think, oh, that’s just Italy, they have all sorts of corruption, but one look at the local news  makes it obvious that I would delude myself to think so. The past few years of local news have been full of political scandal and corruption–to such an extent that the local Democrats actually appointed a Republican to a position that had been made vacant due to an embezzling case (long story). So no, the corruption and messy ends are not unique to Italy.

Also refreshing about the Leon novels, the detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti, doesn’t have a tragic flawed past, isn’t an alcoholic, has a happy family life–in the third book his major personal conflict is whether he will solve the case in time to join his family on vacation. Nor are the cases solved quickly, with some miraculous piece of conclusive evidence or some spectacular deduction on the detective’s part. Grunt work, tedious slogs through piles of papers and computer files, and waiting, waiting, waiting–it somehow strikes me as more likely to be realistic than the TV crime procedurals I spend too much time watching, while not being too graphic or gritty. A series I can happily return to.

Odds ‘n Ends

  • I really should have posted earlier this week the results of the Classics Club Spin: number 14 was selected, which means I will be reading The Castle of Otranto. If I get it read (and it’s short, so yay), it will fill the Sensation! project slot for this year.
  • Speaking of yearly goals, the above post marks my successful completion of a reading challenge ON TIME! One goal down for the year and it’s only February.

Completed: Death in a Strange Country

Death in a Strange Country
Donna Leon

With the early bulbs blooming full force, the windows flung open, and the back porch a comfortable sitting spot, February is but a distant memory. And while the weather is more akin to a NE Ohio May than mid-March, it really has only been a few weeks since I finished the second Venetian-set book I had intended for February.

Ages back, Eva of A Striped Armchair recommended the Commissario Brunetti mysteries, and I somehow was wise enough to follow up on the suggestion. Although Leon is American, she has spent more than two decades living in Venice, and the city truly comes alive in her mysteries. I am swept back to the two brief days I spent in the canal city nearly ten years ago. (Wow, has it been that long?)

There is an element of cynicism in the two books I have read thus far: the idea that crimes might not go punished in an Italy where the mafia runs seemingly unimpeded and power and influence are far more potent than morals. Whether this is an accurate representation of Italy or a stereotype expected by American audiences, I couldn’t say. The atmosphere of the town and characters, however, feels authentic.

In this second book in the series, the victim is an American solider from the US Army Camp in nearby Vicenza, found face-down in a Venetian canal. This leads to jurisdictional tangle-ups and the insistence by Brunetti’s superior officer that the case be tied up quickly—regardless of accuracy or justice. Brunetti himself seems to operate in a mid-zone, acknowledging the system while seemingly unable to stop himself from fully completing his investigations.

What I truly love about these books, beyond the chance to travel by arm chair—and they truly are a wonderful way to visit the “real” Venice, not just that of tourists—are  Brunetti’s warm relationship with his family and his dry humor. For example, an exchange between Brunetti and one of his junior associates, regarding a historic Saint:

‘I’m surprised you didn’t know that, sir. About Saint Barbara.’
‘I wasn’t assigned the case,’ Brunetti said.

Whether or not I ever get to visit Venice in person again, I’m happy that I can always return second-hand.

Completed: Death at La Fenice

Death at La Fenice
Donna Leon

Venezia. Serenissima. City of Masks. Queen of the Adriatic. City of Water. So many names for such a small place, the splendor of its heyday now faded, battered by l’acqua alta, inundated by tourists—of which I once formed a guilty part—but its beauty still alive.

During my semester in Italy a friend and I spent two days in this tiny town, exploring the nooks and crannies—and as every “good tourist” must, visiting every museum and Piazza San Marco, of course.  However, unlike many good tourists, much of our time was spent without a map, the best way (short of living there) to discover any city and to stumble upon the unexpected. It is a city without motorized transport, save that which is in the water, where children may play in the streets without fear of a speeding driver, a city with many bridges, many canals, a city with a certain faded grandeur, its glory long past. In short, it seems the perfect setting for all sort of fantasy or intrigue.

As if in the grip of a demon, or a deity, Wellauer’s body had swept back and forth above the podium, left hand clenched half open, as if he wanted to rip the sound from the violins. In his right hand, the baton was a weapon, flashing now here, now there, a thunderbolt that summoned up waves of sound. But now, in death, all sign of the deity had fled, and there remained only the leering demon’s mask.

In a city known for its musical heritage—home of such composers as Antonio Vivaldi and Claudio Monteverdi and of the Teatro La Fenice opera house—it seems appropriate to set the mystery inside the musical world. In Donna Leon’s first Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery, Death at La Fenice, the victim is a world-famous conductor; the setting for the crime is within the backrooms of the famous opera house. As a mystery, Death at La Fenice  is solid, enjoyable, full of intriguing characters. I found the solution satisfying without being overly convoluted or predictable, and Brunetti is a detective I can root for, without any dark secrets or bad habits that almost seem requisite for literary crime solvers.

But I did not read Death at La Fenice because it is a mystery (although I was seeking a mystery), I read it because it is Venetian. Leon, although American, has lived in Venice for many years, and the feel of the novel is one I recognize from my time spent in Italy. It is the little details that I recognize: the locales, the daily activities, the worries over choosing tu or lei when addressing a new acquaintance. My only complaint is that perhaps she carries this too far, “telling” too much rather than letting us experience. For example, referring to a wall of books: “He easily recognized the Italian ones by the way their titles ran from bottom to top, the English by their titles running top to bottom.” I don’t know if I’m bothered because I already knew that Italian titles are different than English titles and so it feels redundant or if this is indeed an example of over-describing. On the other hand, I loved all the passing references to little details that set the scene, the casual use of words or phrases that don’t have an easy English translation (antipatico the prime example). This is a series I shall return to, for the nostalgia for my time spent in Italy, if nothing else.

As my first selection for R.I.P, Death at La Fenice does falter, not for any inherent fault in the story itself, but for a lack of a suitably spooky, melancholy, or dark atmosphere appropriate to the season. However, as a story evoking the flavor of Italy, of Venetian life, it is exactly what I had hoped for.