Commissario Guido Brunetti is one of the more likable crime-solvers in detective fiction and he lives in one of the more colorful cities on the planet. In Donna Leon’s successful mystery series,Venice is as strong a presence as the corrupt politicians, nefarious criminals and salt-of-the-earth cops who manage the action on the byways tourists seldom see.
Brunetti starts the adventure in Friends in High Places with a problem: his apartment, on the top floor of a 15th century Venetian landmark building, may not exist. He discovers this while in the apartment in question from Franco Rossi, a bureaucrat who works at the building department tracking old construction permits. There is no paperwork at all for Brunetti’s apartment and, if it can’t be found or magically materialized by a large bribe, Brunetti, his English professor wife Paolo and his teenage kids could find themselves living in the rubble of a bare rooftop.
The police commissioner’s son is caught with drugs, an architecture student overdoses and Rossi turns up murdered after calling Brunetti about some troubling matter he never gets the chance to report. Before he is finished solving this one, Brunetti will explore the deadly underworld of Venetian moneylenders, the heroin trade, corruption in more than a few Italian bureaucracies and frequent meals of tempting pastas and antipasti.
Leon’s stories are always layered with generous helpings of homemade Italian delicacies—the Brunetti family eats and drinks well–various excellent wines, grappas and spirits, camaraderie among longtime colleagues at the Questura—the cop shop–and complications in plotlines, murders and the loathed tourist trade that keeps the city partly afloat even as it submerges it in crowds and threatens the local businesses.
Signorina Elettra, the boss’s secretary who wears the latest from Milan, fills her office with fresh flowers daily and can hack into any computer system on the planet, is supremely competent, feisty and delightful. Vice-Questore Patta, the boss, is an insufferable gas-bag, as dangerous as unbridled ambition gets. Paola is devoted to Guido and Henry James—probably in that order, whips up a mean soft-crab and low-keys her connection to one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Venice.
The behind-the-scenes glimpses of Venice are terrific, the plots twist and turn through crooked streets, political malfeasance and human greed. The canals are picturesque and polluted. The old buildings are crumbling, magnificent and hiding dark secrets. A Guido Brunetti mystery is a treat and Friends in High Places is one of the good ones. Read it to find out if the Commissario is homeless or not at the end of the day—and whether the bad guys he invariably exposes ever pay for their foul deeds. I’d be happy if Leon could crank out one of these every couple of months—they are as addictive as a well-made cup of cappuccino in a Venice bar.
Friends in High Places Donna Leon | Penguin Books 2008