Tag Archives: organized crime

Beastly Things – Donna Leon

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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

11/22/63 – Stephen King

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I finished 11/22/63 at 4 a.m. It’s a doorstop of nearly 850 pages—and it’s very very good. I have admired Stephen King’s work, the excerpts and articles and the classic book about writing, but this was the first novel of his I’ve read. Can’t handle horror. Have no skin for it. Horror haunts me and creeps me out so I was never brave enough to tackle Carrie or The Shining or any of the mega-bestsellers that made King’s reputation. 11/22/63 is spooky and weird but it is also an addictive story that pulls you through from open to Afterword because you want to find out what happens and you know the people King has created and their fate is important to you.

It is possible to stop right there. That’s what books are supposed to do so you should read this one. (Maybe you could take it in large bites so you don’t have to stay up until 4 a.m. though.) I’m not quite ready to abandon the experience and move on so a few words about the world of 11/22/63 will allow me to relive it a bit. The fiction is a time travel and the present-day hero steps back into 1958 to begin his adventures. He is reluctant—the book does follow Campbell’s “hero’s journey” and you can sort that out as you read it. But he is intrigued and quickly hooked. A dying friend reveals the portal to 1958 and entrusts Jake Epping, a high school teacher, with his life’s mission: travel back in time and prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963 in Dallas.

Epping takes a stack of 1950s silver certificate dollars, a fake i.d. and identity as George Amberson, and a sheaf of notes about Oswald’s life and the sporting events of the time and, eventually, assumes the challenge. But first he tests the theory by foiling a brutal domestic crime that affected the janitor of his high school—to see if the time travel actions really hold in the present. It works and, with enormous trepidation and curiosity, he sets out. Along the way, Epping encounters life in the age of sock hops, real Co’ Colas with cane sugar, people who say “Can I help you?” when you need help and don’t lock their front doors. He places unlikely bets that he wins to bankroll his exploits—when you know the outcome in advance this is not hard. He falls in love with and acquires a cool ragtop, a snub revolver and a fiancée and tries to remember to ditch 21st century slang along with his cell phone.

The magical world of the 50s is, in reality, not all that magical, as Epping finds out. People are violent, racist, ignorant, trapped in dirt and poverty, and die of physical illnesses for which there are not yet cures. People are also innocent, open, caring, in touch with an essential kindness, and accustomed to savoring life at a human, not a high-tech, pace. Epping likes it so much he considers staying once his task is complete. But the past is a living entity in King’s mind and it doesn’t relinquish its hold on history lightly. Malevolent things occur and the stakes rise sharply. Epping prevents some horrors from happening but other, equally vicious and ghastly acts exact an exorbitant price. Gain is offset by wrenching loss. Spooky stuff drives the plot and consumes Epping’s attention. Meals, clothes, guns, gas and rents are cheap but heroism will cost you everything.

There is incredible research in this novel and the world Epping visits is authentic and fascinating. It’s almost history—but it isn’t. It’s extraordinary Stephen King, which is, in some ways, even better.

11/22/63: A Novel   Stephen King | Scribner   2011