Saturday, July 26, 2014

A book for the beach: Beastly Things by Donna Leon

The 21st Commissario Brunetti mystery finds the series' characters and setting as vital as ever. An excellent holiday companion

Rio Sainte Sofia
You will want to be there … the Rio Sainte Sofia in Venice, Italy. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

There's a body in the canal, a bloated man with a neck the size of the avarage waistband. Stabbed. No identification. One shoe. So begins the 21st in the Commissario Brunetti police procedural series by Donna Leon, all set in and around Venice. 
This one takes our hero across the bridge connecting the city to the mainland and Mestre, where his sensibilities are assaulted by the irksomeness of traffic jams, the alien manners of upmarket shoe retailers and a visit to a meat processing plant that will have you retching. Turns out Brunetti remembers the victim from a farmers' protest some years back. Turns out he was an animal lover, a softy vet, and a happily settled family man until …
    Brunetti is unlike other fictional cops. Not for him angsty theatrics or the need to wallow in existentialism. He has no special powers of instinct or insight. He collars his crims by plain old hard work, and when there is a choice between nailing a suspect and a lunch of meatballs with children Raffi, Chiara and beloved wife Paola, the grub wins every time. Add a glass of prosecco, let him stretch out on the sofa and the dude will start quoting Virgil.

    You don't need to have read any of the previous Brunetti books – which started in 1992 with Death at La Fenice – to grasp the tectonic movements. Each is a self-contained story and, while over time the back stories of the characters have obviously evolved, Leon manages on each outing deftly to re-familiarise you with the context of their lives. In Beastly Things all the regulars are here: Vianello, Brunetti's dependable sidekick, is going through some soul-searching; Pucetti (dim but useful) has learned how to use Photoshop; pathologist Rizzardi is ever–sharp and quick to identify the victim's condition as Madelung's Disease; self-aggrandising station chief Patta is still useless after all these years. And the enigmatic, but sometimes too-perfect PA Signorina Elletra has gone all creative with EU budget small print and secured Brunetti a brand-new top-end computer. With the internet, and all that.

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