May 2010

Liz Fischer

fiction

A Question of Belief by Donna Leon

The world Donna Leon creates in her Venetian detective series -- the latest of which, A Question of Belief, will be published this month by Atlantic Monthly Press -- is dependable. Tourists teem the city, the pace of life is slow, food is central, the Internet is a mystery, the government is corrupt, and the church more so. Indeed, a fan will find themselves at home in these pages, but rather than make the series staid, it is exactly this consistency that draws in the reader. American author Leon’s Venice, where she has lived for many years, is three-dimensional and vivid. Her characters are fully realized. 

Two plotlines, with many tendrils, run through the new Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery. The first begins with a visit from a fellow city employee whose suspicions have been piqued by inter-office gossip. He hands Brunetti a somewhat cryptic list of court cases that are being held in limbo to benefit the plaintiff. The information seems to implicate, if not incriminate, a certain judge and clerk, and sets Brunetti on a casual investigation driven by informal inquiries. It’s a bureaucratic start for a genre that often reveals a dead body on the first page, but it is both realistic and well suited to Brunetti’s strengths: observation and patience.  

The subplot involves Vianello, Brunetti’s favorite officer and his partner in all but rank. The officer confides to Brunetti that his typically sensible aunt, a widow, has become entranced by astrology, and has recently been paying substantial sums to a shady psychic. With these two plots in motion, Leon is able to indulge in two of her favorite themes: the abuse of power, and the abuse of faith. 

Brunetti is a ranking government official, but he is not of the machine, which he (and, one suspects, Leon) views with resigned contempt. In one revealing aside, Brunetti muses, “Governments came and governments went, the Left came and then gave place to the Right, and nothing changed. Though politicians often talked of it and promised it, not one of them gave evidence of having any real desire to change the system which worked so very much to their real purposes.” Later in the book, he laments the lack of evidence or of any technical wrongdoing on the part of a judge and a powerful business owner, “There was the risk of temporary embarrassment for Puntera and Coltellini, but if embarrassment were a bar to advancement, then there would be no government and no Church.”  

The action does not move very quickly in this installment. In fact, half of the book has passed before someone is murdered. But as is often the case with Leon’s fiction, the plot serves not only as means for drama and resolution, but also as a vehicle for what may be the most satisfying elements of the books: scenes of Venice and of Brunetti’s family life. His home is warm and inviting; his wife, Paolo, is an academic who seems to spend as much time reading Henry James in her study and cooking four-course lunches as lecturing at the University. “If you can get here in fifteen minutes, there’s prosciutto and figs and then pasta with fresh peppers and shrimp,” she says. The reader is privy to almost every meal and every espresso Brunetti consumes over the course of the story.  

A Question of Belief is set in the dregs of August, and Leon makes excellent use of the famed city and the sweltering weather. “The sun had blasted all life from Campo San Giacometto. The florist’s and the two stands that sold dried fruit were closed; even the water trickling from the fountain looked beaten down by the heat.” 

One of the refreshing things about Leon’s mysteries is that her endings are not tidy. The reader’s need to know is sated, but justice is rarely swift. Rather, true to the systems of government she criticizes, evidence goes missing, truth is fleeting, court cases drag on endlessly, powerful people step in to protect their interests. So it is with this book as well.  

A Question of Belief, the latest Brunetti mystery, is fulfilling. The plot moves slowly and sometimes gets waylaid by minor details, and because of that it is not Leon’s best work. But a book in the middle range of an excellent series by a commanding writer is still far better than most, and well worth reading.  

A Question of Belief by Donna Leon
Atlantic Monthly Press
ISBN: 0802119425
288 Pages