A detective in Venice

2008-08-13 00:00

Naturally enough, most writers of an annual series detective novel produce a dud from time to time: maintaining standards of interest, liveliness, inventiveness and freshness is tough. But Donna Leon, so far, is a marvellous exception — not one of her 17 detections featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti of the Venice police has fallen flat.

Partly this is because Venice itself, geographically, aquatically and historically unique, is always one of the most important characters in each book: Leon hinges each story on some fascinating new facet of that extraordinary city. Partly it’s because Brunetti, humane, honourable, intelligent, a warm family man, but also a fine detective with no illusions about the worst aspects of human nature, is such an attractive individual, so that one starts reading every time in pleasurable anticipation of again enjoying with him relaxed domesticity and gastronomic delights, as well as following his idiosyncratic unravelling of a case.

Here, Brunetti and Ispettore Vianello retrieve a body floating in the Grand Canal — that of a very young girl carrying, mysteriously, gold jewellery the theft of which has not been reported. No one, either, has reported her missing. Which means that Brunetti must discover both the cause of her death and her identity. Also, in tracing her back to her family, he must somehow disentangle a carefully laid web of secrecy and concealment — unsurprising, in view of the fact that his investigation leads him from some disconcertingly lofty places in Venice itself to a Gypsy, or Rom, encampment on the mainland. Interestingly at this xenophobic time in our own country, we learn something of the history of Gypsies in Europe, of their way of life, and of the prejudice and violent suspicion often attached to them by local communities: nothing new under the sun there.

As always with a Leon novel, I galloped through it, was sorry to get to the end, and started to read it again, more slowly. I can offer no more complete endorsement of a book and of a writer, than this.

Stephanie Alexander

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