Source: Review copy
Publication: 9 March 2023 from Hutchinson Heinemann
My thanks to Hutcheson Heinmann for an advance copy for review
On a cold November evening, Guido Brunetti and Paola are up late when a call from his colleague Ispettore Vianello arrives, alerting the Commissario that a hand has been seen in one of Venice’s canals. The body is soon found, and Brunetti is assigned to investigate the murder of an undocumented Sri Lankan immigrant. Because no official record of the man’s presence in Venice exists, Brunetti is forced to use the city’s far richer sources of information: gossip and the memories of people who knew the victim. Curiously, he had been living in a garden house on the grounds of a palazzo owned by a university professor, in which Brunetti discovers books revealing the victim’s interest in Buddhism, the revolutionary Tamil Tigers, and the last crop of Italian political terrorists, active in the 1980s.
As the investigation expands, Brunetti, Vianello, Commissario Griffoni, and Signorina Elettra each assemble pieces of a puzzle-random information about real estate and land use, books, university friendships-that appear to have little in common. Until Brunetti stumbles over something that transports him back to his own student days, causing him to reflect on lost ideals and the errors of youth, on Italian politics and history, and on the accidents that sometimes lead to revelation.
32 books devoted to one character is quite an achievement and it is testimony to Donna Leon’s crafting of Commisario Guido Brunetti that we still have things to learn about him.
As Brunetti undertakes a regular cull of his books to make way for new ones and muses on the three sessions a week that his wife Paola teaches at the University he is called to the aid of a colleague. Alvise has surprised Brunetti and Ispettore Vianelli by becoming caught up in a protest and arrested. Such matters are delicate not so much because of the nature of the protest, but rather because the delicacy of navigating the protocols over the arrest of a fellow officer is a tricky one to traverse. But this is, of course, where Brunetti excels – in understanding the language and the body language and what needs not to be said in order to bring matters to a satisfactory conclusion.
Signora Elettra has been away at an important cyber security conference but returns unimpressed. The Italian Police have a long way to go before they catch up with her quietly impressive skills.
Brunetti hears news of a well-known burglar who is reputedly now back in operation in Venice but that has to be put aside when he is called out to the discovery of a hand, quickly followed by a body, lifted from the Canal. Brunetti is surprised to discover that he has met the man, a Sri Lankan, only recently. Such is the way of Venice that, in the course of following up a query from his father in law, he had enquired only recently at the Palazzo in whose somewhat neglected grounds the Sri Lankan lived , to see if the property might be for sale.
The Palazzo has a nunnery as a neighbour and as Guido investigates he finds more about Inesh Kavinda, the murdered man, who was undocumented. He used to do odd jobs for the Palazzo’s owners, including helping Professore Molin to take his daily walks. So the team have to piece together the scraps of information they can find in order to make a complete picture of the man. One of the odd things they discover from looking through his shed/cottage in the grounds is a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings that he has kept.
Kavinda had a finger bone in his pocket which is curious to say the least. And the newspaper cuttings relate to past terrorism activities in Italy which seems very much at odds with the Buddhism he practiced.
Brunetti is acquainted with one of the owners. Gloria Molin he knew from his youth, though they have not met since. Professore Molin, in the process of trying to lay claim to a noble heritage, is not very helpful but Brunetti is effusive in his humility as befits one of the lower orders. “Brunetti gushed with thanks, as though he were the public fountain in Campo Santa Margherita, free to spill its freshness at the feet of Professor Molin.” Flattery and obeisance is clearly the way to secure the co-operation of such an esteemed figure and as always it is Brunetti’s understanding of the human psyche that gives him his advantage.
Gloria Molin describes Inesh as a man who was a tireless worker; who helped many older people and was kind and gentle with them and who loved his family and his books. Though his reading matter was mainly English novels, he also had an interest in Italian History and had asked her about The Red Brigade.
As Brunetti, Vianello and Claudia Griffoni investigate, with the help of Signora Elettra’s distinct specialist skills, they have to piece together the various scraps of information they are able to garner in order to establish a fuller picture of what happened.
It is Brunetti’s understanding of life, the class system and Venetians that makes these books so special. Together with his trusted team, they work diligently on the small bits of information they gather until they can see the whole picture and when it comes together it isn’t pretty.
But as always, Brunetti is calmed by his contact with the rhythms and cadences of the city and its people and as he follows the case through we learn a little more about Guido as a young man and why especially he is less than fond of jackets with leather patches on the elbows.
Verdict: Donna Leon again delights with the well-plotted investigations of Guido Brunetti. We love to understand his resentment of the surveillance age even as his investigations benefit from it. We enjoy his reflections over various espressos – because leaving his place of work at the Questura helps to restore balance to his life and certainly nothing does that more than heading home for lunch with his wife and children. It is in the trivialities of life that Guido finds his peace; that and knowing that wrongdoing will not prevail under his watch.
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Donna Leon is author of the much-loved, best-selling series of novels featuring Commissario Brunetti and one of The Times’ 50 Greatest Crime Writers. Widely considered one of the best detective series ever, with admirers including Ursula K. Le Guin and Antonia Fraser, the Brunetti Mysteries have won numerous awards around the world and been translated into thirty-five languages.