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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

In addition to my love of science-fiction and fantasy, I am a mystery fan.  The two genres seem to have started together with Edgar Alan Poe, and while some of Sherlock Holmes mysteries seem to have a touch of the fantastic about them (The Devil’s Foot) it was more in his Professor Challenger that Arthur Conan Doyle cut loose and explored speculative fiction in his Lost World.  Still Mystery and SF seem like natural bookmates to me and usually are found that way in bookstores.

Today I am reviewing Donna Leon’s Inspector Brunetti mystery, The Girl of His Dreams.  For those who do not know this series, it is about the Venetian police (that’s Venice, Italy, not Venice, California, or Venus) in the person of the middle-aged and married Guido Brunetti, a Commissario of Police (equivalent of a Detective Lieutenant, I believe, of the NYPD.)  Brunetti is a thoughtful man, up from the working-class with a better than usual education and an appreciation of the classics.  He is married to the rather volatile Paola, a college professor fond of Henry James and has a boy and a girl.

Like most portrayals of Italian policemen, he is saddled with an incompetent, political chief (or Questura) Patta.  Brunetti seems as completely cynical about government, law and the prospects for changing anything as his fellow Venetians.  Yet at his core, Brunetti is an idealist He tilts at the windmills of the politically connected who run Venice and step on the law with apparent impunity.  He is a humanist, believing in the dignity of the individual person.  And so he fights his world-weary battles with bureaucracy and crime, aided by his big, bearish sergeant Vianelli and the every handy and delicately beautiful computer whiz, Signorina Elettra, Patta’s secretary who runs the police department  as if it was her private possession, all in Patta’s clueless name.

But let me not miss the central and most compelling character of the Brunetti series, Venice herself.  If you have not been there, you may not quite understand, but Venice is like no place on Earth.  When I stepped out of the dim brown train station into Venice proper with its exploding colors, exotic architecture and canals full of boats of all descriptions, I was a changed man.  I had come face to face with Beauty in the manifestation of a city.  I lost my heart to Venice and have not gotten it back, nor do I look to.  Never mind the throngs of tourist (was I not one?) who came from across the globe to worship at the feet of this goddess, or the other small details (everything in Venice is small, I had to open the shower doors to raise my arms) that moment of revelation is what every movie director dreams of being able to pull off.

So Venice is as, Rudy Maxa said, decadent and dreaming of her vast, past glories, and through her narrow streets (calles) and along the murky canals stalks Brunetti.  In this adventure he is called to a scene where a 12 years old girl’s body has been pulled from a canal.  She is one of the Roma, a gypsy, despised as troublemakers and petty thieves in Italy.  On her corpse are a watch and a wedding ring.  The burglary the child committed was not reported.  Italians avoid all contact with their impotent police force save for the middle crimes.  For the lesser crimes, it is not worth it and nothing will happen.  For the great crimes, those of the Mafia or wealthy, nothing dares happen.  The Mafia, in these books, is referred to as it were another branch of government, a great power and it is untroubled by the police who seem to exist to war with the middle branch of working class crime.  The Guarda Di Finanaza battles the Mafia to the extent anyone does and the regular police rarely, in Brunetti’s world, seem to encounter them.

Still occasionally one of the rich and powerful who move through the same waters as the Mafia stumbles and falls into Brunetti’s sights and on these he shows no mercy, pursuing them with dogged determination regardless of the threat to his career.

Brunetti wishes to know if the child, who no one has reported missing, or is looking for, was pushed or if she fell escaping the homeowners.  He knows she would not have been alone so someone knows.  This leads him into the closeted and dark world of the Roma, persecuted for many decades and nearly exterminated by the Nazis.  They do not trust the police, yet he is able to wheedle out some leads.

Spoiler Alert (Stop here, skip the italics and read on and you will be safe)

Yet in this book, too much reality leaks in.  Brunetti pursues his investigation originally with the tacit acceptance of his superior Patta, which is reversed when Patta learns that the burglarized family is connected by an engagement to the son of the minister who oversees the police.  This then becomes like some of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, where Brunetti like Holmes, learns what is going on, unravels the mystery but does not, as a protagonist, bring the culprits to justice.  He does not have the evidence.  This is all too realistic a scenario and in a long series like this, completely forgivable.  Like Doyle, Donna Leon realizes her hero cannot win all the time.  Sometimes he must settle for knowing.  Yes as with those Holmes stories, it leaves a vaguely unsatisfied feeling, this is not the Hound of the Baskervilles, but more the Black Hand, where the Hero is more witness to crime than avenger of it.

Okay back on the record.   I enjoyed this book as you would any visit with an old friend, whose quirks and habits charm you.  You long to walk with them to the brioche stand and have a glass grappa, to stand in the Venetian sun and dream of ancient empire.  For those who wish to enter this series, do not start here though, this book, in my view, requires that your relationship with Brunetti already exist.  Start with Aqua Alta or Death in a Strange Land.  Get to know Brunetti and Venice first and then read this.

A few notes on the TV series as seen on PBS.   Talk of your multi-cultural experiences!  Donna Leon, an American who has lived all over, does not trust the Italian governments she writes so scathingly of and will not employ an Italian company to film these mysteries.  The Donna Leon mysteries are filmed in Venice, but with an all German cast and crew.  Even Brunetti is played by a German Uwe Kockisch. Even for Germans, this cast looks GERMAN, particularly his wife Paola.  So you read the subtitles of what the Germans, playing Italians, say.  It can be jarring initially.  However if this is all the price I must pay to see my beloved Venice, I will pay it happily.
Venice Canal Painting by Schelly Keefer

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