Mists and literary addictions

  • Fri Oct 15th, 2010 11:30pm
  • Life
Mists and literary addictions

Another month, another literary addiciton. I am not sure what it is about the autumn days that bring out the mystery lover in me, but that is what happens.

I have previously discussed my love of mysteries that combine their intrigue with cuisine. In last month’s review I talked about how the Hannah Swensen mysteries mix murder and baked goods in a recipe that never fails to distract and delight. However october brought me something more sober, and infinitely more delicious.

Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti Mysteries are a sleek amalgam of culture, politics and the classic whodunnit. However when I was first told about Leon and her books, I was skeptical.

The fact that Leon is American, from New Jersey originally, and that she chooses to write about an Italian male character in Venice, at first seemed an incongruous mixture. Before I knew better, I was concerned that here again would be one more writer who is in love with Italy. Or rather, an idea of Italy. It is a country easily reduced to lovable simplicities, the art, the food, the pace of life. How wrong I was.

Leon writes from a place of specific experience. She has lived in Venice for over 25 years, accruing a fluency not only with the local dialect and micro culture of the island, but of the crippling Italian bureaucracy. All this informs the Brunetti books.

I have now read about three. My latest, “The Girl of his Dreams,” is a perfect example of how Leon brings a reality to her whodunnits. A reality that is both enlightening and disheartening.

Brunetti’s investigation into a questionable, religious figure is cut short when a young girl is found drowned in a canal. The ensuing investigation leads the Commissario through a maze of unanswered questions, dead ends and unpredictable conclusions.

What makes Leon’s work so interesting is that those questions, dead ends and conclusions are often dictated not by the villain, but by the very administration within which Brunetti works. In Brunetti’s world, there is no clear front of good and evil, the very society he seeks to serve is quite often the “bad guy.”

Thus, time and again we see Brunetti’s fight for justice thwarted by upper echelon politicians, and his boss, Vice-Questore Patta. Patta’s concern with reputation and keeping the superiors unruffled, means that he consistently removes Brunetti from an investigative path. The very path that might bring the killer to justice.

By the end of “The Girl of his Dreams” Brunetti knows fine well who killed the girl, and why. The real struggle comes with the seeming impossible task of involving the law. In the quiet battle between the best interests of those at the top, and those who have been wronged, often it is the wronged who lose out.

Leon, however, is more talented a writer, and more engaged with Italian culture than to simply leave it at that. This is no polemic on how corrupt Italian administration is. There is also the food. Brunetti is a family man, thus most chapters are punctuated with a meal time, and family conversation. Did I mention the food? Not simply pasta and fruit but details of meals and their seasonality that only a local could understand and describe.

On a wider scale as well we see through Brunetti’s eyes how Venice has changed in the last 25 years. We see the routes locals take to avoid tourists, the way and when of drinking coffee, wine, and Grappa. The books drip with detail and an intimate understanding of place, without overdoing descriptions. Leon never wastes time describing the appearance of famous Venetian sights. This is a mystery after all, not a tourist tract.

So roll on, autumn days, and here’s to the next month, and the next mystery.