It’s a Mystery: “The person with the secret is the person with the power”
Falling in Love
By Donna Leon
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015
The Children Return
By Martin Walker
Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
Falling in Love, Donna Leon’s splendid 24th mystery to feature Venetian police Commissario Guido Brunetti (after 2014’s By Its Cover), reunites Brunetti with opera diva Flavia Petrelli, known in Italy as “La Petrelli.” In Death at La Fenice (1992), Leon’s debut novel set in and around the city’s historic opera house, Flavia was a suspect in the poisoning of a renowned German conductor. Brunetti saved her from the murder charge and kept her out of prison. In Acqua Alta (1996) he rescued her female American lover from a life threatening situation and an imbroglio that at first appeared to implicate the diva. Now, finally, Flavia returns to Venice to star in Puccini’s Tosca at La Fenice.
Her performance is a triumph. “Not since Callas – and that had been half a century ago – had anything like this Tosca been seen or heard.” Offstage is another matter. Early on, we see that she is stressed. The cause: the yellow roses that have inundated her since opening night.
It had happened first in London, two months before, after the last performance of Nozze, when the single yellow roses had rained down on her, at the first curtain call, and during each successive one. Then at a solo recital in St. Petersburg, they had fallen amidst quite a number of traditional bouquets…. Then it happened here, the opening night, scores of them falling like yellow rain…no name, no information, no note to explain such an excessive gesture.
At the end of the third performance, she finds every surface in her dressing room covered with the flowers. Now she is filled with dread. Fortuitously, Brunetti and his wife Paola are in the audience. Afterwards, Brunetti reunites with the diva. This leads to an invitation for her to dine at Palazzo Falier, the home of Paola’s parents, the rich and powerful Conte and Contessa Falier. Not so incidentally, the Conte is an opera buff who, Paola points out, has an abbonamento (subscription) and is a fan.
At the dinner, a noticeably tense Flavia (or so she seems to Brunetti), confides in them about her obsessive fan. Unofficially, Brunetti resolves to do a little digging. It isn’t long before the fan intrudes more and more into her personal space by showering her with inappropriate gifts that carry with them a strong suggestion of menace. When a female singer whom Flavia openly admired is badly hurt, it’s enough tangible evidence for Brunetti to officially step in. Hard on the heels of that attack a close friend of Flavia’s and an old chum of Brunetti is seriously wounded. Brunetti responds in his time honored fashion, by attempting not only to sort out the facts but also the psychology behind them—in this case, the process through which an obsessive fan becomes a potentially lethal stalker. He is painfully aware that time is of the essence if he is to stay a step ahead of this crazy and keep Flavia, and anyone else, out of harm’s way.
One of the pleasures of a Leon mystery is the interplay of characters who are so happily familiar to us, with all their quirks and foibles. First and foremost is Signorina Elettra. Ostensibly the secretary to their pompous blowhard of a boss, Vice-Questore Guiseppe Patta, she is the rock upon which the office rests. She performs all manner of unofficial duties—some not always legal—for Brunetti, whose eye is very blind when it comes to her actions. Brunetti has confessed quite often that without her the Questura would fall apart. In Falling in Love, her characteristically unorthodox contribution is critical.
Brunetti’s, everybody’s kind of family man, is completely enamored with his household.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. Food is the Brunetti family’s primary passion and they continue to consume incredibly large meals without the whisper of a weight problem.
Then there is his daughter Chiara, a beautiful, volatile teenager with whom he has a special bond. And his son Raffi, Brunetti’s firstborn who’s growing up too fast. And, above all, there is the city of Venice—the force that drives all their lives. Leon makes us feel its magic, taste it, smell it, all our senses are assaulted.
Last, but definitely not least, there is Leon’s deep love of music which the return of Flavia gives her the opportunity to convey. She constructs a brilliant climactic scene that parallels the finale of Tosca. Falling in Love is altogether a bravura accomplishment.
It’s not all that far from Venice to the Dordogne region of France where Martin Walker’s Bruno novels take place. The latest (after 2014’s The Resistance Man) is The Children Return, wherein we find Benoît Courrèges, chief of police of the small French town of St. Denis, where he is known to everyone as Bruno, with a grisly corpse on his hands.
Since his retirement from maintaining world order as a U.N. peacekeeper in Sarajevo, Bruno’s time has been spent solving routine crimes. In the company of his basset hound Balzac he tends his chickens and his horses. He’s a bachelor with no lack of female companionship. An accomplished chef, the produce from his garden provides some of the ingredients for his gourmet meals. He cooks not only for his friends but for occasional fêtes. A wine connoisseur, he keeps most of his savings invested in the local vineyard along with over half of the citizens of St. Denis. It’s an idyllic existence, one which is shattered by the horribly mutilated body he now has on his hands:
He felt sickened by a personal sense of outrage. Even though the dead man was a stranger, Bruno felt the manner of this man’s death had been a kind of pollution of these woods that he loved and knew so well.
With the help of the brigadier, an important official from the Ministry of the Interior, he soon identifies the corpse as Rafiq. He was an undercover agent investigating extremist infiltration (jihadists) at a nearby mosque. A tattoo tells Bruno that he was a member of the Thirteenth:
The Thirteenth was a regiment of paratroopers, an elite unit that was part of the French brigade of special forces. Bruno had served alongside some of them in Bosnia. The Thirteenth specialized in discreet reconnaissance in hostile territory…. Rafiq would not have been easily subdued, even by two or three men.
The murder of Rafiq is but a small part of a larger plot. Sami Belloumi, an autistic savant, who disappeared from the area four years earlier, has resurfaced. Sami grew up in St. Denis in the house of his uncle Momu, the math teacher at the local collège who adopted him. Momu and some local residents, Bruno among them, nurtured him. As he grew up, he rarely spoke but exhibited extraordinary mechanical skills. He could dismantle and repair anything large or small. When Sami went missing, Momu et al were devastated and eventually thought him to be dead. Now, according to Zigi, an old army buddy of Bruno’s stationed at a French military base in Afghanistan, Sami is there and wants to come home. Turns out, he has been a captive of the Taliban who have been using his technological genius to make lethal weapons. Odds are that Sami has absorbed reams of invaluable al-Qaeda intel. Sami and anyone connected to him are terrorist targets! St. Denis will be under siege.
Bruno felt anger and frustration at the invasion of their placid town by murderous forces from the world outside. This was the time of year when St. Denis should be thinking of little but the wine harvest and the coming of the new rugby season.
Zigi skillfully navigates Sami‘s return home, where extraordinary measures are being implemented to keep him hidden. Bruno, the boy, and a contingent of bodyguards will be holed up in a remote chateau that has been secured by the army. Orchestrating “operation Sami” is the brigadier who has an even more startling revelation for Bruno:
“Sami’s thumbprints are all over some of the unexploded IEDs they found in Afghanistan. Looks like your boy is the expert the Americans call the Engineer.”
Bruno’s jaw dropped. He recalled reading articles in the French press about this legendary bomb maker, his Innovative designs and the meticulous craftsmanship of his work…
“Even if Sami is not the Engineer, at the very least he worked with him. So your young friend may be responsible for dozens of deaths. Under a shelf load of antiterrorism agreements we had no choice but to inform our allies that we’ve got him.”
Enter Nancy Sutton, an elegant lady who Bruno soon discovers is as savvy as she is soigné. She’s FBI, high-level liaison on law enforcement and security issues with the French government: interior ministry, justice and DST. Moreover, Bruno knows that The Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire was more counterespionage than law enforcement. She handles Sami with consummate skill, extracting information from him without intimidation. The brigadier has her working alongside Deutz, deputy head of the prison psychiatric service: “a very smart guy with lots of diplomas…. He probably knows more about French jihadis than anyone else, but he’s also a top-notch psychologist.”
Except that Nancy can run rings around him and does. Why does Deutz accept it? To Bruno there is something off about the man. Little does he know just how off. Further complicating Bruno’s life is the mysterious history of two Jewish siblings who claim to have been sheltered locally from the Nazis during World War II. The sudden presence of the surviving one, Maya Halévy, an Israeli venture capitalist extraordinaire, old but formidable, sets off a whole new crisis with the jihadists. The climax is a slam bang battle royal. No one escapes unscathed.
The Children Return is a potent mix of intrigue and charm. It’s powerful and prescient, without one false note.
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.