Top positive review
25 people found this helpful
Donna Leon - Suffer the Little Children
on 21 April 2008
As John Peel said of The Fall, "always different, always the same"; it's a sentiment that could equally apply to the Venetian novels of Donna Leon. Always different in the plots, the players, themes, always the same in terms of wonderful style, rigid social engagement and interrogation, and Guido Brunetti and his family. These elements don't really vary from book-to-book: Leon's style, her intense interest in the social issues effecting her fair city, and the comforting presence of Brunetti and his warm, reassuring family. That's why so many people are drawn back novel after novel, thanks to these reliable elements. And it's no different here. All these things are present, correct, and as attractive as ever. They make every Leon novel a guaranteed pleasure. However, it's the differences that add the spice and flavour of each novel, that stand them off in competition with one another, and that make "Suffer the Little Children" one of the strongest entries in the series, certainly the best since the career highlights that were Uniform Justice and Doctored Evidence.
Three Carabinieri officers burst into the apartment of a local Venetian paediatrician and his wife. After trying to defend his family, the doctor is left in hospital, and one of the officers is the victim of "assault". Their 18 month old son is taken. Brunetti is summoned to the hospital in the aftermath to try and find out what's gone on, what motivated such a violent reaction from the military police? Why was their son taken? This initial event will set Brunetti into a practical and moral maze of policework involving illegal adoption, infertility clinics, desperate parents, fraudulent pharmacists and nefarious moralising doctors. And, as always in Leon's Venice, the long influential arms of those who wield the real power.
If there any crime-writer alive guaranteed to provide a complex moral or social issue to mull over, it is Donna Leon. Past novels have taken a beating-stick to the military, conflict diamonds, lagoon pollution, and this 16th novel takes a long hard uncomfortable look at unwanted children and illegal adoption. Better that babies go to loving homes rather than stay with parents who don't want them and would (and do) sell them for paltry sums? Better to stick to the law rather than set a precedent? Better to remove these illegal children to orphanages? As always, no answers are provided (though Leon's politics and probable views aren't exactly difficult to work out), but much for food thought is given. As intelligent social and moral tracts, they're almost unrivalled.
It's hard to describe what is so attractive and engaging about Leon's novels, and it's all the hard with this one for some reason. They're just immensely readable at the same time as being immensely... "important" sounds too pretentious, but that's essentially what I mean. They're readable but there's also a deep seriousness and darkness to them, like the dark murky waters of the Laguna. It's sometimes a shame that Leon isn't a little more ambitious with her series, considering what she can do when viewing it (as she does) as merely an easy hobby! Given that she seems to view her novel writing almost as just a pleasant distraction, it seems to allow her a freeness with the form, and, though not exactly "ambitious" she displays an incredibly admirable and liberating willingness to disregard conventions of the genre to very good effect, and she partly does that here. It's almost like a crime novel in reverse in some respects, in that the burst of violence comes at the end. Suffer the Little Children is, in a way, an examination of the build-up to a crime. It's also admirable in that there is no murder! How odd, for a crime novel! No murder, but still a deeply unsettling crime (the traffic of children). It's a good lesson, to other crime-writers. The power of these very real issues is quite enough to power an engaging novel and fill it with suspense etc., the puzzle doesn't necessarily have to come in the form of a dead body.
Suffer the Little Children is the 16th in the series, and one of the best. It's a supremely refreshing read, and, despite the comforts of its humane protagonist, a nicely unconventional and challenging crime novel. I recommend it to all (though it is probably not the best to start with). The final 20 or so pages are completely brilliant. But then, Leon has always been wonderful at messy endings. Do read her.