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It’s A Mystery: “Ah, what the stage lost when I opted for the police”

About Face

By Donna Leon
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009

It is fitting for an author who captures the soul of Venice in her detective novels to open each one with a quote from a Mozart opera. It sets the tone, so to speak. Here from Cosi fan tutte we have:

Che ti par di quell’aspetto?

What do you think of that face?

Commissario Guido Brunetti and his wife Paola are on their way to a dinner party at Palazzo Falier, home of Paola’s parents, the rich and powerful Conte and Contessa Falier. They are one of a handful of families whose splendid Palazzos line the Grand Canal. The Palazzo Falier has belonged to the family for at least three centuries and someday it will be Brunetti’s:

He noticed the woman on the way to dinner. That is, as he and Paola paused in front of the window of a bookstore, and he was using the reflection to adjust his tie, Brunetti saw the woman’s reflection as she passed by, heading towards Campo San Barnaba arm in arm with an older man. He saw her from behind, the man on her left. Brunetti first noticed her hair, a blonde as light as Paola’s, braided into a smooth bun that sat low on the back of her head. By the time he turned around to get a better look, the couple had passed them and was nearing the bridge that led to San Barnaba.

As it turns out, the couple are guests at the dinner party. Moreover, Paola confides, the Conte has set up this dinner party so his son-in-law can meet them. He is Maurizio Cataldo, a man, Brunetti recalls, said to have the ear of certain members of the city administration. But it is the woman, Franca Marinello, who captures his attention:

…her expression was impossible to read. Or more accurately, her face expressed pleasant, permanent anticipation, fixed there immutably by the attention of a surgeon. Her mouth was set to spend the rest of its time on earth parted in a small smile, the sort one gives when introduced to the maid’s grandchild….This, then must be Cataldo’s second wife, [overindulged in cosmetic surgery], ‘la super liftata’, some distant relative of the Contessa about whom Brunetti had heard a few times but whom he had never met. A quick search through his file of social gossip told him that she was from the North somewhere and was said to be reclusive and, in some never explained way, strange.

Brunetti doesn’t know the half of it—yet! Next day at the Questura, he gets a phone call from the Conte asking him to “discreetly” see if Cataldo is someone with whom he would want to invest:

Whether he likes it or not, Brunetti will escape neither his fascination with nor his ambiguous feelings towards his in-laws and the power they represent.

Brunetti for his part, earned slightly more than three million lire a month as a commissario of police, a sum he calculated to be only a bit more than what his father-in-law paid each month for the right to dock his boat in front of the palazzo.

A decade ago, the count had attempted to persuade Brunetti to leave the police and join him in a career in banking. He continually pointed out that Brunetti ought not to spend his life in the company of tax evaders, wife beaters, pimps, thieves, and perverts. The offers had come to a sudden halt one Christmas when, goaded beyond patience, Brunetti had pointed out that although he and the count seemed to work among the same people, he at least had the consolation of being able to arrest them, whereas the count was constrained to invite them to dinner.

[from Death at La Fenice, the first Brunetti novel, 1992]

For Brunetti the Cataldo inquiry calls for the fine hand of Signorina Elettra. Ostensibly the boss’s secretary, she is really the rock upon which the office rests. If anyone can manage to get the goods on Cataldo and his wife, it’s Elettra. Brunetti has confessed, quite often, that without her the Questura would fall apart. Unfortunately, before he can talk to her, he is summoned by the boss, Vice-Questore Patta, to meet Maggior Guarino from the Carabinieri in Marghera. After much preamble, Patta launches into a diatribe against certain nefarious organizations that are taking over legitimate businesses – specifically the transportation industry:

Maggior Guarino’s been involved with this problem for some time, and his investigations have led him to the Veneto. As you might realize, Brunetti, this concerns all of us now.

Since anyone who read a newspaper or ever held a conversation in a bar knew about this, Brunetti briefly wonders if his boss is emerging from some Rip Van Winkle like trance:

Donna Leon

…and so I hoped that, by introducing you two, some synergy could be created, Patta concluded, using the foreign word and again giving evidence of his ability to be fatuous in any language he used.

Faster than you can say ‘pronto’ Guarino, who has his own real and urgent agenda, and no patience for unctuous bureaucrats, gets them out of Patti’s office (the lire never stops there).

Guarino needs Brunetti’s help in a case involving the illegal hauling of garbage emerging on a worldwide scale, with monumental consequences. Brunetti signs on, Guarino gets killed, and Brunetti’s left holding the garbage bag. The trail of waste, in more ways than one, leads not only to government corruption at the very top, but also to the doorstep of Signora Cataldo. Ah, Brunetti, “Attenti La Signora!

The finale here is rude, raw with shock, uncharacteristically harsh, sad, and thoroughly unpredictable. Leon’s carved out edgy new territory with familiar tools and it’s brilliant. Her trademark, as it were, is tackling social causes within a thoroughly entertaining context. Here, instead of tackling the causes head on, she allows Brunetti to do some subtle, up-from-under sideswiping and it’s very effective.

One of the pleasures of reading Donna Leon’s Brunetti novels is that the world of Guido Brunetti is so much more than solving crimes. He is everybody’s kind of family man. There is his lovely Paola, the professor of literature who is a study in contradictions. Born and bred an aristocrat, she’s an ardent feminist and a world class cook, who is devoted to the works of Henry James. He quotes Cicero, she quotes James. She’s the light of his life and the bane of his being.

Then there is his daughter, Chiara:

Brunetti had loved this child from the instant he learned of her existence, since the moment Paola told him she was expecting their second child.

Chiara is an environmentalist with overwhelming ecological fears; she’s pretty, pouty, fiercely adolescent—when it comes to emotional inconsistencies, she is her mother’s daughter. As for Raffi, Brunetti’s firstborn who’s growing up too fast, he is tall, handsome and cynical (whoever did he get that cynicism from?)

And there is certainly no mystery when it comes to the Brunetti family’s primary passion: food. With few exceptions, twice a day the Brunettis sit down to eat the likes of: ruote with melanzane and ricotta in tomato sauce, rospo with scampi and tomatoes, risotto with spinach and pork with mushrooms… (“fast food” is not in the Brunetti vocabulary). Moreover, maddeningly, there’s not a whisper of a weight problem in that household. Maybe it’s because they don’t just talk. They spar, they carry on about everything, old and new disputes, semi-shouting matches, clever arguments, logic, rhetoric:

argumentum ad absurdum, Brunetti said with unconcealed pride.

Must be all that vocal energy that keeps them thin!

Above all, the center, the force that drives their lives is Venice, the wondrous, magical city that is Brunetti’s obsession. It is his life’s blood, his first love, his mistress and his memories. Venice—city of secrets—we wander with him down its alleys, onto its bridges, into its hidden corners, our footsteps on the ancient stones, the canal waters lapping at their edges. We see it through Brunetti’s eyes—the first snow on the gondolas, the early sunlight on the Grand Canal. We are beckoned by restaurant smells, all our senses are assaulted there is plenty amidst decay. If Venice is sinking, so it is with Brunetti’s heart. Leon leaves him in About Face with one last secret that is never to be revealed except to us.

Simultaneously with Leon’s novel, Grove Press has published Brunetti’s Venice by Toni Sepeda. A charming guidebook of “Walks with the City’s Best-loved Detective” with an introduction by Donna Leon. This is an aficionado’s delight. Interspersed with the recommended sights, are passages from Ms. Leon’s novels. Toni Sepeda has been professor of literature and art history in Northern Italy for twenty years. She has long conducted individual, authorized tours of Brunetti’s Venice.

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Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.