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It’s a Mystery: “It’s always good to know whatever the enemies of your enemies are after”

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The Waters of Eternal Youthwatersofeternalyouth
By Donna Leon
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016

Goodbye to the Dead
By Brian Freeman
Quercus, 2016

Dinner parties at the fabled Palazzo Falier, home of Commissario Guido Brunetti’s in-laws, are always a double-edged sword for him. His enjoyment of their lavish hospitality is usually tempered by the knowledge that he must be “on.” The party that opens The Waters of Eternal Youth (the 25th of Donna Leon’s Brunetti series, after 2015’s Falling in Love) is no exception:

He had been dragooned into coming by his wife and his mother-in-law, who had claimed that his position in the city would add lustre to the evening.

Brunetti had insisted that his ‘position’ as a commissario di polizia was hardly one that would add lustre to a dinner held for wealthy foreigners. His mother-in-law, however, using the Border Collie tactics he had observed in her for a quarter of a century, had circled his heels, yipping and yapping until she had finally herded him to the place where she wanted him to be. Then, sensing his weakness, she had added, ‘Besides, Demetriana wants to see you, and it would be a great favor to me if you’d talk to her, Guido.’

Demetriana is Contessa Falier’s close friend, Contessa Lando-Continui. By the party’s end Brunetti has a surprisingly urgent invitation to meet with her the following afternoon. The next day he tells no one where he’s going as he makes his way to the Contessa’s Palazzo Bonaiuti. Once he and the Contessa are settled in the beautifully appointed reading room she serves coffee along with a priceless single malt whisky

whose label made Brunetti stare. Brunetti pushed the coffee to one side of the tray and picked up his glass. The liquid was too precious for him to say something as banal as ‘cin cin,’ and so he said, ‘Alla Sua salute’, and held his glass up to her.

‘And to your heatlh,’ she answered and took a sip.

Brunetti did the same and thought he’d sell up everything and move to Scotland. Paola could find a job teaching, and the children would find something to do with themselves. Beg, for example.

It’s a quintessential Brunetti moment, at which Leon excels. However, once the Contessa’s travails bring him down to earth, he succumbs to a mixture of curiosity and pity and agrees to investigate an incident involving the Contessa’s granddaughter, Manuela. Fifteen years ago she was found drowning in a canal. She was rescued by a passing drunk at the last moment who claimed he saw someone push her but forgot his testimony the following day. Unfortunately, by the time she was pulled out it was too late. She suffered severe brain damage and her life was never the same. Her maturity was stunted. A beauty who was once a passionate equestrian, Manuela, now aged 30, cannot remember the accident or her beloved horse, and lives trapped in an eternal youth. There is no evidence that she was the victim of a crime, but there is a grieving grandmother who seeks the truth before she dies. That, for Brunetti, is more than enough to justify reopening the case and ever so carefully prying into the lives of the people involved.

His efforts uncover a very real crime with a dark story at its heart. He deftly copes with a veritable hornet’s nest of ancient secrets while awash in the rhythms and concerns of contemporary Venetian life. They range from historical preservation, to housing, to the new waves of African immigrants. In the end, as always, justice in Brunetti’s world is somber, never offsetting the pain that surrounds it. Except that Leon takes things just one step further in The Waters of Eternal Youth with a remarkable last scene that is wondrously breathtaking and will move you to tears.

One of the joys of Donna Leon’s Brunetti series is following the characters we’ve seen develop over a quarter of a century (her first novel Death at La Fenice was published in 1992). Happily, The Waters of Eternal Youth has all the usual suspects. There is Brunetti’s boss, the impressively dim Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta, who is once again manipulated by Brunetti, and his not so secret weapon Signorina Elettra. Ostensibly Patta’s secretary, Elettra, is the rock upon which the office rests. She plays the internet like a virtuoso:

He found her with both hands raised and motionless over the keyboard of her computer, a pianist about to begin the final movement of a sonata. The pause as she decided the precise attack extended as he watched. She read whatever was written on the screen, then her eyes moved up to study his face with no sign that she recognized him. Finally she lowered her hands, sat back and folded her arms across her chest.

There is his lovely wife Paola, a professor of literature who effortlessly whips up gourmet meals. Born and bred an aristocrat, she’s an ardent feminist who is devoted to the works of Henry James. Their children, Raffi and Chiara, are growing up fast and have become quite interesting in their own right.

And now and forever, there is Venice, the magical city that endures despite the depredations wrought by the 21st century. Venice remains the force that drives all their lives and in Leon’s hands assaults all our senses.

goodbyetothedeadDuluth, Minnesota, is a world away from Venice. It’s the scene of Brian Freeman’s Jonathan Stride series. Lt. Jonathan Stride of the Duluth Police Department made his debut in 2005 with Immoral. Stride is a straight arrow cop: “honorable, headstrong, brooding and bold—a man who would give his life trying to do the right thing and who would feel every failure deep into his bones.” Immoral immediately garnered a huge fan base, winning numerous awards and receiving stellar reviews comparing Brian Freeman to Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly, among others.

Goodbye to the Dead is the seventh in the series and it’s right up there with his best. It is nine years since Dr. Janine Snow, friend of Stride and his wife Cindy, was convicted of killing her husband. It is eight years since Cindy died of cancer. As the novel opens, Stride’s fellow detective, Serena Dial, finds the gun that had been missing from the crime scene at Snow’s home and that reopens the case. Dial and Jonathan Stride are currently lovers with a long and rocky history. Dial finds the gun outside a bar where a murder has just taken place. She’s been following Cat Mateo, the troubled pregnant teenager whose mother Stride tried but failed to rescue from an abusive relationship (The Cold Nowhere, 2013). Cat, who now lives with Stride and Dial, is a handful and a half and because of that Dial put a tracking device on Cat’s phone. On this night, it not only turned up Cat, it turned up a crucial piece of evidence in the case against Dr. Janine Snow.

Janine Snow and Cindy Stride have been friends for five years ever since St. Anne’s recruited Janine from Texas to a top spot in cardiac surgery at the downtown hospital. Cindy worked as a physical therapist in an adjacent building, and they met in the cafeteria:

Janine made no secret of her Texas-sized libido, but she was one of those women who always seemed to have the wrong man in her life. She’d already been divorced twice before relocating to Duluth…. Through both marriages, she’d kept her own name, Snow. And like the snow, she was cold, driven and blinding.

Two years after Janine arrived at St. Anne’s, she married Duluth News-Tribune columnist, Jay Ferris. It was a marriage made in hell:

Jay was black, and Janine was white. He was an Iron Range Democrat, and Janine was a Lone Star Republican. …Janine freely admitted to Cindy that her interest in Jay was rooted more in lust than love, but after the heat between them flamed out, their passion veered to the other extreme…. Janine and Jay never went anywhere together. Not anymore. Not for months.

The night Jay Ferris was murdered, Cindy had driven a fairly inebriated Janine home from a party. But when she dropped her off, Jay was very much alive. As she drove away, she could hear their loud voices arguing. Several hours later, Stride and his partner Maggie Bei are on their way to Janine Snow’s house, and Jay has been shot:

Stride was hard pressed to remember a dead spouse at home who hadn’t been shot, stabbed or bludgeoned by their loving husband or loving wife. …However, Janine Snow wasn’t an ordinary suspect. She was rich. She was a local hero who saved lives on the operating table. She was one of his wife’s closest friends…. Jay Ferris lay sprawled on his back…. A circular wound had burned through the middle of his forehead.

“Jay Ferris,” he murmured. He had to be honest. He’d never liked this man.

Ferris was a maverick who thrived on controversy. He used his position to destroy ordinary people. One of Stride’s own cops, Nathan Skinner, had wound up in Ferris’s crosshairs. It had been a messy situation and Stride was ultimately forced to fire Skinner. Ferris used his column to make Skinner the poster boy for racism inside the city’s police ranks. Jay Ferris wasn’t popular with the Duluth Police.

Also at the crime scene is Archibald Gale, Northland’s leading defense attorney. For Stride, his presence is an immediate power play on Snow’s part that doesn’t help her case. At the high profile trial, Gale makes much of the murder weapon’s disappearance, but to no avail. The evidence against Snow is solid and includes two revelations: Snow was having an affair with Nathan Skinner and she was addicted to pain pills (a cache is found in a secret hideaway). She is convicted and sentenced to twenty-five years with an expectation of serving at least two-thirds of that before parole.

Freeman skillfully connects a lot of diverse story lines that includes a sex-slavery operation and the history of the newly found murder weapon. That gun is tied to a shooting that took place a few weeks before Jay’s murder and a more recent killing of a telemarketer named Kelly Hauswirth. Stride begins to question whether he made a terrible mistake and put an innocent woman in prison. There is also one other small eye-opener which is dropped up from under: Archie Gale, despite his impeccably professional facade at the trial, thinks she was guilty!

Goodbye to the Dead is a superior psychological thriller that adroitly weaves obsession, sex and revenge into a page-turning mystery. At the end there is the Freeman hallmark: a shocker of a plot twist that turns everything that’s gone before upside down.

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.