Friday, 2 September 2011

Favourite Mystery Writers - A Touch of Venice

Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti Series
I will say I do love a well-written series. One of my favourite mystery series for the past few years has been Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti series, which is set in Venice, Italy. Ms. Leon started the series in 1992, with Death at La Fenice and since that time has published 20 novels. I noticed just the other day that she has published Brunetti's Cookbook, which intrigues me, since one of the aspects that makes the novels enjoyable and interesting are the meals that Brunetti has with his family or when out solving mysteries. I think it's a neat idea.

I haven't read the mysteries in any particular order, of the 8 that I have read so far, since 2002, when I bought my first one. I don't think it hurts anything by not reading them in order, but obviously there are incidents involving specific characters, including the basic fact that Brunetti's two children; Raffi, his teenage son and Chiarra, his precocious, lovely daughter, are both growing up as the series progresses. If you prefer to read the books in chronological order, this is how they've been released:

Dressed for Death (1994)
1. Death at La Fenice (1992)
2. Death in a Strange Country (1993)
3. Dressed for Death (or The Anonymous Venetian) (1994)
4. Death and Judgement (A Venetian Reckoning) (1995)
5. Death in High Water (or Acqua Alta) (1996)
6. Death of Faith (or Quietly in their Sleep) (1997)
7. A Noble Radiance (1997)
8. Fatal Remedies (1999)
9. Friends in High Places (2000)
10. A Sea of Troubles (2001)
11. Wilful Behaviour (2002)
12. Uniform Justice (2003)
13. Doctored Evidence (2004)
14. Blood from a Stone (2005)
15. Through a Glass, Darkly (2006)
16. Suffer the Little Children (2007)
17. The Girl of his Dreams (2008)
18. About Face (2009)
19. A Question of Belief (2010)
20. Drawing Conclusions (2011)

Death and Judgement (1995)

Donna Leon, the author of this great series, was born in New Jersey in 1942. Now what you may well ask qualifies her then to set her series in Venice, Italy and make the locale and people who populate the stories seem so real?

Good question. :0). Donna has lived in Italy for over 25 years, lecturing in English at the University of Maryland University College - Europe, then worked as a Professor from 1981 to 1999 at the American military base of Vicenza (Italy).

She no longer teaches, instead concentrating on her writing and other cultural activities. According to the write up on her in wikipedia, while her books have been translated into many foreign languages, at her request, they have not been translated, oddly enough, into Italian.

Acqua Alta (1996)
As I mentioned earlier, I first discovered Donna Leon around 2002. I do love to browse in The Laughing Oyster bookshop on 5th Street in Courtenay, when looking at new books (I do love the name of the store for one thing.) They have a nice little mystery section at the back of the shop and when I'm looking to see if any of my favourites have put out new books, I often head there first.

One thing that does often first catch my attention with new authors is the book cover. Donna Leon's Penguin editions did just that. There is a simplicity to the spine, her name and the title with a solid neutral colour. When that grabs your focus and you pull out the books, the shadowy photo in the foreground, some focus on Venetian architecture; and then the muted colours (well, I'm an autumn person, so the oranges and brown do appeal to me).

Of course, that wouldn't especially make me buy a book; I next read the summary and that has always been interesting enough to get me started and then continue to draw me in.

Doctored Evidence (2004)
 For example, in Acqua Alta, "A Venice braces for a winter tempest, Commissario Guido Brunetti, Donna Leon's intrepid Italian sleuth, finds out that an old friend has been savagely beaten at the palazzo home of reigning diva Flavia Petrelli. Then, as the flood waters rise, a corpse is discovered - and Brunetti must wade through the chaotic city to solve his deadliest case yet. Sinister and exotic, Acqua Alta is another chilling addition to Donna Leon's bestselling series."


Ah yes, the setting. As mentioned, the stories are set mainly in the environs of Venice, Italy. It definitely adds to the ambiance of the novels. Donna Leon lovingly describes the area, the feel for the history, the sometimes decay caused by political interference, pollution, the flooding, but at the same time, there is an affection; the small cafes frequented by Brunetti, the history in the buildings, the lives of the people who make Venice their home.

As Brunetti wanders around Venice, either walking or taking the water taxis and police launches, you feel you are there and experiencing the area with his eyes. Brunetti obviously loves Venice and is at the same time frustrated that it is being let decay because of government corruption and inaction.

Death in a Strange Country (1993)
 I love the politics of simple things like getting repair work done on apartments and homes. I love sitting in the bars with Brunetti, having a grappa or sitting in his kitchen while he interacts with his wife and children as they prepare the evening meal. I've been to Venice a couple of times in my earlier life and reading these stories does bring back some foggy memories of the time I did manage to spend there, even as short as that was.

Of course, not every story is set in Venice, or, at the very least, Brunetti does make side trips to other areas, but his fondness is always for his home. And why not?


Of the stories I've read so far, and I've managed to read 8 thus far, these are the main characters that the Commissario deals and interacts with -

A Noble Radiance (1997)
 Brunetti (himself) - Of course, he is the lead, the main protagonist. Guido Brunetti is a Commissario (police commissioner) who works for the Venice Police Force. As best as I can relate this rank, he is a superintendent who leads investigations and other such duties. Brunetti is intelligent, somewhat cynical, but one who seeks justice for the victims of the cases in which he is involved. He has to deal with the Italian political system in gaining this justice, but he has the assistance of a small group that he can always rely on to solve his cases and get justice.

Vice-Questore Patta - Brunetti's boss is an ambitious individual who is often a thorn in Brunetti's side. He is an individual who wants promotion and he won't let Brunetti's sense of justice side track this desire of advancement. Brunetti must often tread carefully to get what he needs; warrants, the ability to interrogate powerful people, etc, or Patta will hinder or stop his investigations. However, it does seem that the good Commissario knows how to get around his sometimes interfering boss to ensure some form of justice is achieved.

Sergeant Vianello - Brunetti's most reliable investigator, the subordinate he relies on the most to help solve his cases is the redoubtable, efficient Sergeant (and sometimes his wife as well) who works tirelessly on Brunetti's behalf. There have been cases where even his wife, who works in the background, has become involved to question friends and acquaintances if the case interests her.

Uniform Justice (2003)

Signorina Elettra - OK, I admit it, I have a crush on la bella Signorina. Elettra was introduced in Dressed for Death. She is Patta's secretary, but also provides invaluable assistance to Brunetti and Vianello. She has come over as a senior secretary from la Banca Italia and provides a wealth of knowledge of how to gain information from the Italian governmental Internet and seems to take great joy in researching and gathering useful information for the two. Besides the fact that she is lovely, intelligent and just darn wonderful.. well, I guess that says it all. Why she helps them or chose to work with the police is mainly a mystery, but we're glad she does!

Brunetti's family (Paola, Raffi and Chiarra) - It's nice to have a mystery series, dealing with crime, murder and corruption, where the main protagonist isn't divorced, dealing with personal ghosts and all that stuff. Not that Brunetti doesn't have issues, but the nice thing about the series is that he can go home to his family, which grounds him. His wife Paola, who comes from one of Italy's richest families, but is more of a leftist, is intelligent (teaching English literature at the university), beautiful and still manages to raise a family and cook great meals!!! This is Brunetti's joy and solace in his life as a police commissario and they add a wonderful quality to the stories.

Where Am I At?

I've managed to read 8 of the stories so far;
Death at La Fenice - Brunetti works to solve the mystery of a German conductor of La Fenice opera house.
Death in a Strange Country -  Brunetti works to solve the murder of a young American who is fished out of a Venetian canal. Though all the signs point to a violent mugging, it may also involve the existence of a high-level conspiracy.
Dressed for Death - Instead of going on holiday to the mountains with his family, Brunetti must try to solve the murder of a banker, which may involve the world of transvestites or financial intrigue.
Death and Judgement - Brunetti works to solve two seemingly unrelated murders, which involve him in the dealings and intrigue of Italy's elite class.
Acqua Alta - As Venice prepares for the winter season and annual floods, Brunetti is once again involved with the opera world as an old friend is mugged.
A Noble Radiance - Brunetti discovers the clue at an old grave discovered at an Italian farm house that reignites a cold case and famous kidnapping.
Uniform Justice - Brunetti must try to solve the case of the murder of a young military cadet, which involves the city's elite and also brings back memories of his own childhood.
Doctored Evidence - Brunetti investigates the murder of a wealthy, elderly woman and the possibility that her Romanian maid was not involved in her murder.

I don't read the books one after the other, rather, I find the series a comfortable read. I enjoy taking one of my shelf of 'to be read' books, every 3 or 4 months and re-installing myself in Brunetti's world. I still have a few on the shelves available to read, so I won't lack for enjoyment. I'm sure also that over time, I will find the remainder as I search through my favourite book stores. I highly recommend the series. Find them and enjoy as much as I have so far!

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