A Question of Belief: (Brunetti 19) Paperback – 3 Mar 2011
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Some authors -- even the best -- can show varying levels of consistency in their books, and sometimes deliver less than their top work. Which is why Donna Leon is considered one of the most reliable practitioners in the field -- so consistently high is the standard of her books. One might imagine by now that she would be repeating herself in her highly entertaining series of novels featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, but there is little evidence of that. Leon, an American expat who has chosen to relocate herself to Venice (where she is friendly with such talented people as the singer Cecilia Bartoli), utilises her knowledge of her adopted city to great effect. As in the latest outing for Brunetti, A Question of Belief.
Venice is sweltering in a heat wave, and Leon's doughty copper is looking forward to getting away from the city and relaxing with his family in the relative cool of the mountains. But his colleague Ispettore Vianello has other things on his mind than the weather; his aunt, seemingly befuddled by an obsessive belief in horoscopes and astrology, has been siphoning off considerable amount of cash from the family business. Vianello asks Brunetti if it would be possible to trail her -- and this unorthodox investigation points the detectives in the direction of one Stefano Gorini. This beneficiary of the aunt’s largesse is not everything that he seems.
At the same time, it appears that there have been irregularities in the courts. At the Tribulane, an usher with a previously spotless reputation, Fontana, has been involved in suspicious business with a judge, Luisa Coltellini -- it appears that justice has a price. And then Fontana is brutally killed. Brunetti and Vianello now have more than enough problems to keep them even busier than usual.
Apart from the usual impeccable plotting, there is the customarily sharp evocation of Venice (something, of course, that Leon can do with one hand tied behind her back). This is not, perhaps, the most sheerly entertaining in the series -- but with the issues of faith and corruption it addresses, it is one of the most provocative. --Barry Forshaw --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
"Leon's books are a joy, and the 19th Venice-based Commissario Brunetti novel is well up to her consistently high standard" (Guardian)
"Leon excels in the claustrophobia of families, the Italian class system and the sinister aspects of Venice that the tourists don't see" (Marcel Berlins The Times)
"To read a Donna Leon novel is to have an armchair holiday in her lovingly described Venice, in the company of an old friend - the amiable Commissario Brunetti . . . Leon never fails to impress with her carefully wrought plots and believable characters" (Daily Mail)
"Knowingness, or an illusion of knowingness, is essential to successful crime-writing . . . Donna Leon has mastered this technique perfectly" (Jonathan Keates TLS)
"Donna Leon has established a special hold on the reader's imagination, so it is almost easier to imagine the Commissario returning to lunch with his feisty wife, just round the corner, than almost any other fiction character in the immortal (we hope) city. . . A Question of Belief is particularly enjoyable...Donna Leon's great skill is to invest the characters in her crime novels with a kind of humanity, even the wrongdoers. . . [a] marvellous evocation of the magic city, and its inhabitants of all types" (Antonia Fraser The Lady)
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The book is carried along by two story-lines: it starts with an unofficial investigation of a confidence-trickster preying on Vianello's aunt that escalates into tragedy by the end of the book and a parallel story involving possible corruption connected with court proceedings that also becomes much more serious when one of the characters is murdered. Although Donna Leon's books are classified as detective fiction they are much more than this and, in some ways, the detection is peripheral to the exploration of morality and the understanding of what motivates people leavened with much humour over human weaknesses and foibles.
At the outset of the book, Inspector Vianello seeks Brunetti’s help in preventing his aunt from becoming too financially involved with a fortune teller, Sr Gorini, who has a very dubious past. Brunetti is also informed by a colleague that there have been suspicious goings on at the court house where the resolution of a small number of cases appears to be much delayed, or much more delayed than is usual in Italy. The common factor is that they all involve Judge Luisa Coltellini and an officer of the court, Araldo Fontana, a man unique in the annals of the Italian civil service who has been absent for only one day in over 30 years.
Once again, Brunetti and Vianello are assisted by Signora Elettra’s contacts and computer skills but, to be honest, this particular aspect of Leon’s books is beginning to lose its initial charm. One wonders how members of the Questura would manage if she were on holiday or seriously ill.
A violent death causes the court house investigation to be stepped up, which is just as well as, until then, the novel was somewhat lacking in forward momentum. The killer is identified and Vianelli’s aunt is saved from frittering away the family fortune but not before Leon introduces a new female character, Commissario Claudio Griffoni, who is very different from Brunetti’s wife, Paola, and Signorina Elettra. Perhaps she will appear in future books. Griffoni ‘looked like anything but a commissario di polizia on duty… her tan made her hair seem even blonder, and her short skirt showed an expanse of bronzed leg.’
There is the usual amount of eating and, between the two of them, Brunetti and Paola manage to read a number of books. Leon describes the pile of books that Paola is packing for the holiday, at one time or another ‘Vanity Fair’, ‘Great Expectations’, ‘The Secret Agent’, ‘Heart of Darkness’, ‘Barchester Towers’, ‘Middlemarch’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘A Suitable Boy’ are all selected. She then decides to read ‘A People’s Tragedy’, about the Russian Revolution [‘The workers’ paradise. Brothers under Socialism. Whatever nonsense we wanted to spout to show our parents that we didn’t like their choices in life.’ She covered her face with her hands, and Brunetti detected nothing false in the gesture. ‘To think that I voted Communist. Of my own free will, I voted for them.’]. I think that Leon’s best books are those in which there is a balance between the descriptions of the police investigation/s and of Brunetti’s interactions with other members of his family. Here, because of the holidays, there is much more of the former than the latter, with the result that Signora Elettra’s activities are much more to the fore.
There are some signs that Brunetti is beginning to share the despair that so many Italian people feel about how they are ruled ‘He was troubled by the helplessness which so many people felt and their failure to understand what had happened, as if aliens had taken over and imposed this system on them. Governments came and governments went, the Left came and then gave place to the Right, and nothing changed. Though politicians talked of it and promised it, not one of them gave evidence of having any real desire to change this system which worked so very much to their real purposes.’
Whilst this is not one of the author’s very best books, it is still a page-turner.
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