Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries tend to follow two trajectories. Some are busy with action and clues breaking out all over from page one as Brunetti juggles multiple plotlines to arrive at his arrests. And others tend to ramble for a while, mixing murder with a native’s views of Venice, lovely interludes with Brunetti’s admirable family and appreciation for fine wines and classic literature. Beastly Things, the latest of his adventures, is the latter. There is more than just murder disturbing the polis, although murder most foul and dramatic there is. This being Venice, the corpse is fished out of the canal, not an uncommon disposal site for victims in fabled La Serenissima.
It takes a few chapters for Brunetti and his investigator, the amiable Lorenzo Vianello, to identify the dead man, whose neck and upper body are disfigured by Madelung disease, a rare physical thickening that turns a human shape into a barrel. But their search, abetted by the bewitching and devious Signorina Elettra, by now a hardened hacker who never meets a protected databank she can’t crack, leads them into a world of the non-human. Somehow veterinarians, slaughterhouses, organized crime and sheer human greed combine to keep Brunetti gainfully employed. A few of the characters are more than gainfully employed—voracious for ill-gotten gains would be an accurate description.
Beastly Things may make you a vegetarian—or a vegan if you avoid meat already. It may also awaken a craving for prosecco, for the perfect pinot grigio, for excellent cappuccino on demand, and for the pastries and homemade pasta that are daily fare in Brunetti’s Venice. It will put you off what comes out of the knackers’ world in the abattoirs that transform cows, pigs and sheep into cutlets and other slabs of protein. Hunger for the cash that comes from cutting corners on public health and unbridled blackmail is another unappetizing aspect the crew at the Questura confront while hunting for a motive.
The Venetians still hate the tourists and Guido and company continue to mourn a vanishing world. But the Commissario gets his own computer in this episode and he isn’t half-bad at figuring it out to help solve the crime. It’s a pleasure to overhear his urbane and affectionate conversations with Paola, a fully-drawn character who manages to run a nurturing home, teach part time at a university and remain a feisty, independent woman with a strong moral core. Another pleasure to track is the dialog as Brunetti bags his prey—he is brilliant, if low-key, and occasionally indulges in provoking the witness—fun to observe.
Donna Leon writes some of my favorite books, guaranteed escapes from a driven city in which no one walks home along winding streets of crumbling, sun-splashed villas for a peaceful two-hour lunch, mulling over the puzzle of the day’s work and arriving at an intelligent conclusion. Guido Brunetti’s Venice is so civilized—even though every time we catch up to him he is solving a murder with tentacles that reach far into the corruption that taints all levels of Italian society. I like a sleuth who reads the Agamemnon and makes his own coffee at six A.M. in the Bialetti so his wife can sleep in. I loved the ingenious final scene–won’t even hint at it to avoid spoiling a treat. And I sincerely hope Leon is scribbling away at her next book so the ongoing saga of death in Venice continues uninterrupted.
Beastly Things: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery (Commissario Guido Brunetti Mysteries)
Donna Leon | Atlantic Monthly Press 2012