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Donna Leon at her best
on 9 April 2008
If you want a simple whodunnit, then read no further. However, if you want to be engaged and challenged, and reminded of the deviousness of the human mind, the by-ways of evil, and the moral ambiguities of life, then Donna Leon has few peers, and this book shows why.
This book starts apparently inconsequentially at a funeral, and then with a priest consulting Comissario Brunetti, Leon's chief character. It serves as a way into Brunetti's thoughts and inner world; for while those are present in each of her Venetian novels, they are centre-stage here throughout.
The main event, the finding of a young child's body in a canal, doesn't come until well into the book, but since what Leon wants to do is show how the find affects Brunetti, as well as those around him, the atmosphere and the interiority of the narrative need space to develop. Without giving anything away, one can say that the girl haunts Brunetti: she is the girl of his dreams in a way that phrase normally never signifies.
The figure of Ispettore Vianello, Brunetti's assistant, is drawn more fully in this novel than in any of the preceding, and he becomes both a mirror to and a foil for Brunetti's broodings.
The usual lighter moments of the series: food, drink, and the wiles of Patta's secretary are all present, but are less prominent. Given the darkness of the book, they have to be. The city's role as a character, always a part of these books, is different, too: somehow, for Brunetti, this crime subtly alters his take on Venice.
By the end of the book, there both is and isn't resolution. The facts around the girl's death are clearer, and the priest's query gets an answer. And we end at another funeral that balances the beginning. But the moral ambiguities are, well, just more ambiguous. It's something that happens in several books in this series to some extent, but here it's not a plot device: it is the plot.
The book is hardly fun, but if you like Donna Leon's work, then this is a must. For me, at least, it's her best yet.