Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sea of Corruption, Aura of Melancholy: Venice in the Mysteries of Donna Leon

Novelist Donna Leon

Donna Leon is an American-born former English professor who decamped to Venice over thirty years ago. Since 1992, beginning with Death at La Fenice in which her first victim was a conductor who was dispatched in the dressing room of the opera house, she has written a series of exceedingly popular crime novels set in Venice. The Commissario Guido Brunetti detective novels have been widely translated except in Italian at her request. Like the best of this genre, Leon’s police procedurals are a vehicle for exploring wider social issues: toxic waste cover-up, the sex slave trade, the blight of tourism, and above all, official corruption and incompetence, which explains why her novels can end ambiguously, with the guilty not often brought to justice. Part of Brunetti’s problem is that he must find creative ways to bypass – usually assisted by his highly proficient assistant, computer savvy, Signora Elettra – the limitations of his hapless and opportunist boss, Giuseppe Patta, who seems more interested in feathering his political ambitions than in discovering the truth or ever tackling the Mafia. For the most part, Patta believes the socially well-connected are innocent and should not be burdened with a police investigation. His priority is to keep Venice’s reputation clean so that it continues to be a mecca for cash-rich tourists. Forget about the environmental hazards posed by tourism and the peccadilloes of politicians.

Unlike the creators of dour, estranged-from-wife-and-children police detectives that are so prominent in the genre, Leon offers an incorruptible, astute protagonist and the comforts of domesticity – one cannot underestimate these reasons for the series’ immense appeal. Brunetti always finds time to enjoy sumptuous lunches and dinners with his wife, Paola, who serves up delicious dishes and teaches Henry James at a local university, and their two likable if at times headstrong adolescent children, Raffi and Chiara. This domestic life serves an important function: it keeps the Commissario’s moral compass straight. Good food, wine, and loving support provide him with the sustenance to cope throughout with complex and morally ambiguous cases. Sometimes food, or more precisely the illicit certification of disease-ridden cattle as fit to be slaughtered for human consumption, becomes integral to the plot as it does in Leon’s 2012 Beastly Things (Atlantic Monthly Press). One of the best and most moving in the series, policing takes priority over domesticity, and the family scenes become directly related to the mystery itself: the killing of animals and the quality of processed meat, when Brunetti learns that his daughter, Chiara, has become a vegetarian, a subject of much heated conversation at the dinner table.

Like so many of her novels, in Beastly Things a body is fished out of a canal, a man stabbed to death and who, as Brunetti discovers, suffered from a bizarre genetic disfigurement. As the Commissario and his sidekick Vianello investigate, they discover that the dead man was a veterinarian with a devoted animal clientele who moonlighted as an inspector two days a week at a slaughterhouse to ensure that the livestock are dispatched humanely and in accordance with standards set by the European Union. Leon has never written a more powerful sequence than the chapter in which Brunetti and Vianello tour the abattoir on the mainland at Mestre with its haunting sights, smells and sounds. Its horrors recall those I first encountered in reading Upton Sinclair’s 1906 The Jungle. The dead man's job was to certify that animals brought for slaughter were free from any disease that could be passed along the food-chain. A motive for his murder becomes clear.

The looming threat posed by cruise ships and the depredations of a corrupt government and a distracted public in the wake of the financial crisis appear in Beastly Things. A tone of bitterness slips into Brunetti’s musings as he sees the tug boat pulling the large ship, with its much more powerful motor, to shore as a metaphor for the relationship between the government that appears to be leading and the real power of the Mafia. Its malevolent influence looms in the background when
"Government ministers were arrested with frightening frequency; the head of government himself boasted, in the middle of a deepening financial crisis, that he didn’t have financial worries and had nineteen houses; Parliament was reduced to an open sewer. And where were the angry mobs in the piazzas? Who stood up in Parliament to discuss the bold-faced looting of the country? But let a young and virginal girl be killed, and the country went mad; slash a throat and the press was off and running for days. What will was left among the public that had not been destroyed by television and the vulgarity of the current administration?"
No wonder that there is an aura of melancholy around Brunetti as his beautiful city sinks slowly but irretrievably into a sea of corruption.

Fortunately, Brunetti finds consolation in the philosophers of ancient Rome and Edward Gibbon’s account of the follies indulged in by certain emperors and the price they had to pay. Brunetti’s intellectual interests are woven into Leon’s most recent offering and perhaps her most cerebral, By Its Cover (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014). The novel was inspired by the actual looting of a major Naples library by its director, a systematic sacking of thousands of rare books that came to light in 2012. Although the criminal damage done in Leon’s novel at a private library is on a far more modest scale, it’s still profoundly disturbing to the library director, as well as to the cultivated Commissario, because illustrations from more than a hundred irreplaceable antiquarian books are ripped out. The initial task is to uncover how the damage was done when the only patrons of this obscure library are seemingly two innocuous scholars: an American academic and an ex-priest who studies the writings of the Church Fathers. The narrative takes on a darker tone when the credentials of the researcher are found to be bogus and the ex-priest is savagely murdered midway through the novel.

Throughout, we are offered perceptive glimpses into the arcane world of antiquarian book collectors, dealers, auction houses, and insight into the closed nature of Venetian society. Foreigners, which include Italians not born in Venice, are never fully accepted into Venetian life. But the mystery itself feels thin and pallid, and lacks the intensity that has been a trademark of her previous novels. Moreover, what makes Leon’s novels most compelling – how the mystery is a stepping stone for exploring wider concerns – appears missing in By its Cover. The social commentary is again about the presence of large cruise ships that Venetians regard as an environmental menace, but Brunetti’s understandable feelings – a recurrent lament throughout the series – resound polemical, even stale. True, there might be a comparison between the cruise ships that unload vast amounts of human cargo that weigh down and physically threaten the city and the ripping out of pages from rare books that threatens the city’s cultural heritage. That connection might be the subject of an expository essay but I do not think it works well in a mystery novel: it’s too tenuous and tangential.

At its best, the novel reinforces our pleasures in meeting again the patient, cultivated Brunetti and his delightful family, and the sights and sounds of contemporary Venice. Leon provides vivid descriptions of the Grand Canal, the vaporettos that transport locals and tourists, the Castello district, one of the oldest and historically significant for its navigational development and once the seat of power for the Roman Catholic Church, and the setting for the murder in By Its Cover. Most importantly, she takes us on a guided tour through the back streets with their piazzas, architecture and history that offer a frisson of delight for anyone visiting the city.

Leon’s series of stories were so popular among Germans that German television has adapted the novels. In North America fifteen ninety-minute shows with English subtitles have been completed and are available in DVD. At first the German is jarring, but at least this viewer got accustomed to it quickly. A little more disconcerting is that the actors playing Brunetti and his wife were changed after four episodes apparently because Joachim Król, the first Brunetti, was not willing to commit to the time required for filming two episodes a year as this scheduling cut into his theatre commitments. In the fifth show, a new actor, Uwe Kockisch, who projects a stronger screen presence, plays the titular character and a new actress plays his wife while the rest of the cast remains the same. Beastly Things has not, at least in North America, been translated to the small screen; I will be most interested in how the filmmakers stage the slaughterhouse scene. From the shows that I have seen and have enjoyed, the character that is most memorable is the lushness of Venice itself. A viewer can experience the vicarious pleasures of Venice, and at the same time become acutely aware of the physical, environmental and political problems that threaten this unique city.

(Photo by Keith Penner)
– Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin LadenYou can find more at his website,

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