I wondered what to re-read after The Darkest Evening. It had to be crime, and I decided to stick with one where the protagonist was a member of a police force, then thought of Donna Leon’s books about Commissario Brunetti.
Guido Brunetti is a member of the Venetian police force, and works from a questura whose staff are composed of honest, hardworking Venetian locals (in particular Brunetti, Vianello and Signorina Elettra), and venal, lazy incomers from the South (the Vice Questore, Patti and his sidekick Scarpa). The uniformed carabinieri are expected to be stupid. One character, Alvise, reminds me of the buffoonish desk sergeant in the television version of Montalbano. Anyone holding a political post, or governmental authority is assumed to be corrupt unless proved otherwise. Italian bureaucracy is invariably inefficient, either slow or faulty, often both. So far so stereotyped, so why did I not only read but buy and re-read so many of these books?
Here are two reasons: Donna Leon’s descriptions of Brunetti’s family, and the facets of Venetian life that are interwoven through each story. Architecture, art, food, canals, tourists, the lagoon – they all play their part, not merely background but often shaping the plot. When Guido Brunetti returns to the family home he must walk through narrow calles, then climb stairs to the apartment. The journey is worthwhile, he usually finds his wife, Paola, and his children there. Paola is the erstwhile-rebellious daughter of a Count, so her character is free to espouse anti-establishment causes and work part-time as a lecturer, while still enjoying financial security, and having access, for herself and her husband, to the most aristocratic levels of Venetian society when his investigation requires it. Like her husband Paola quotes from literature of different centuries, in several languages. But it is unusual to find her reading anything but Henry James. Donna Leon causes Paola to cook enormous, complicated feasts for her family’s suppers, which are devoured by husband Guido and Chiara and Raffi, their two well-mannered, studious, intelligent children.
Sounds like more typecasting? The structure is redeemed by Leon’s marvellous writing, so that the reader sees, smells, tastes each delicious mouthful of the family meal and eavesdrops on family conversations so convincing that this reader joins in. Through these conversations, and the cases Brunetti investigates, Donna Leon explores contentious, contemporary issues such as the exploitation of illegal immigrants, misappropriation of charitable funding and environmental crimes. She uses her characters to express not only her own distrust of organised religion and her despair at the failings of Italy’s government but also her deep appreciation of Italian culture in general, and its expression in Venice in particular.
Donna Leon has given Brunetti (and his wife and most of his friends) a deeply cynical, almost despairing view of the way their country is managed and governed, but this despair is relieved by satisfying, loyal relationships and the introduction and appreciation of reassuringly scrupulous, conscientious minor characters in each book. And most of these characters are allowed to survive.
Checking Wikipedia (where else?) I find that Donna Leon has written twenty-nine Brunetti novels. I haven’t read them all, but in those I have read the protagonists do not age. Chiara and Raffi are forever thirteen and sixteen. In the past I was disappointed, I bought the next book as much to see what happened to them as to unravel the latest crime. Then I heard Donna Leon explain that although she wrote one book a year, the events did not cover a year. However, unlike many sit-coms, where nothing changes, some of her characters die and others do undergo life-changing events, whose consequences affect future books. I look at the books differently now from how I did twenty years ago, not as episodes in a saga, but as a series of vignettes, looking in depth at moments during the life of Donna Leon’s characters and their city. Close-ups, rather than a long view. And as such, rewarding to re-read, because there is always more detail, more observation to discover.