[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, May 2015.]
It’s not often that you read a book that is so absolutely propelled by dialogue. Thankfully though, with Donna Leon it is high quality and as colourful as a medieval pageant.
Set in modern day Venice, at a relaxed and leisurely pace the story follows detective Guido Brunetti who is investigating the vandalism and theft of rare books from one of the city’s libraries. His style is a casual, mainly social affair where a typically Mediterranean attitude towards all things, including paid work, is apparent. A three and a half page episode where Brunetti’s tailored suit is the focus, points towards male vanity and the importance to the average Italian of “la bella figura” but these regular digressions and diversions are at times quite touching, such as the detective’s nostalgic childhood memory of working a day on farm to make some money for his poor mother.
The author has tried to make the city almost a character itself and a vital part of the mental atmosphere of the book but she has only partly succeeded. The reader is given plenty of street names and references to canals but these often lack a human touch. It is more when Leon writes about the abstract qualities such as the season that she gives us an insight into her protagonists. Writing about the fresh new spring she says: “As had happened to him since boyhood, Brunetti felt a surge of directionless goodwill towards everything and everyone around him, as at the end of a period of emotional hibernation. His eye approved of all it saw, and the possibility of a walk was an intoxication.” When Leon hints at one of the character’s collective memory being passed by genetics through generations I also sat up and took notice. “The wiring [in his mind] is too strong or too old,” she writes.
At one point too the author says that Brunetti “danced about mentally” and this book is actually a kind of mental dance around a crime. It can be seen as a crime fiction book that spends a lot of time avoiding the act of the book theft and instead uses its energy on setting the stage with brilliant character descriptions and witty conversational exchanges. In fact, the first thirty pages are completely incidental to the storyline and as a woman author she does an exceptional job of giving an extremely insightful picture of the male-dominated world of policing.
Equally well portrayed is the insider-outsider mentality and stupid status ranking system that so often dominates in small-minded conservative societies. This ‘pettiness that plays so rough’ (as Bob Dylan puts it) is highlighted in a specifically Italian version of corruption and this both entertains and informs. Venetian low-moral/high-society and the tittle-tattle gossip that runs through it like thinned blood seems to me to be given more detail in the story than the crime that is supposed to be at the centre of events, which is a bit of an afterthought and actually something I liked.
In this book set in the 21st century, a maid to one of the wealthy class of this area of Italy is still shown curtsying to a visitor. That is probably a fitting symbol of the twisted ethics of those with the greatest comfort and the greatest power in our era.