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My manager at work has been talking about the quality of Donna Leon's work since the day I started working for her. I advised her I often struggle with foreign authors, writing about places I do not know and cultures I do not appreciate. Despite this she put this crime thriller on my desk, so the very least I could do is try it so I could form an opinion of her work too.
About the author:
This was Donna Leon's 12th crime novel. Of these five including this one, have focused on Commissario Brunetti as the books main character.
The book is set in Venice and is it very clear this is a place the author knows a lot about and has a respect for, having lived there for over twenty years.
She has won the CWA Macallan Silver Dagger for Fiction for 'Friends in High Places'.
Synopsis of the book:
An old and highly unpopular lady Maria Battestini is found murdered in her flat. The prime suspect for this is her Romanian Maid. Who is found on a train bound for her homeland. She tries to escape but is killed by an oncoming train. The Police believe this unaccountable departure, together with forged papers and a large amount of cash prove her guilt.
The head of the investigation Lieutenant Scarpa believes the case is solved and no further investigation on his part is required.
However 3 weeks later a graphic designer Signora Gismondi returns from working in London and discovers through local gossip what has happened while she was away in the neighbourhood.
She immediately contacts the Police and tells Scarpa that it was not possible for the Maid to have killed the old lady. This he treats with doubt and sarcasm.
Commissario Brunetti also interviews Gismondi and agrees to take on the case on an 'informal' basis.
He then sets about uncovering the truth about the murdered lady and her family. In an attempt to find out the motive for her murder. This he will have to be careful about, as he doesn't wish to cross swords for Lieutenant Scarpa and his investigation.
My thoughts on the book:
This was the first novel I had read by Donna Leon and I found it quite unusual. I have got used to fast paced novels in which the Detectives work quickly and efficiently to solve the case and I found Brunetti's approach quite different.
I found this book quite difficult to get into and also to maintain my interest. I think it was because not much seemed to be happening in the investigation. I found the different culture and way of working alien, but at the same time interesting.
The basic story line was good and I liked the way the investigation brought two men from the same Police force into contact and potential conflict which meant that Brunetti needed to work without the knowledge of his superiors if he was going to find the truth.
I just thought although a good concept for a story, that the investigation was much too long winded and could have been sorted out a lot quicker. However what it did do was demonstrate to me firstly a different style of Police work but also how investigations need to cover everything. Not to look at something and make an assumption but to look at all the available information before coming to a conclusion.
The lead character was Brunetti and I found him a very interesting and quite diverse character. He believed in finding the truth, family, honesty and helping people. As a result I found him an easy character to relate to and I was always keen for him to solve the case.
He was well written and I particularly enjoyed the way the author moved from his work to his home life. It was good to learn about them and it added a dimension to his character and in a sense made him more human.
It was interesting to see the lack of a relationship between Scarpa and Brunetti and the backdrop of corruption. I found their relationship quite funny and Brunetti was excellent at dealing with his fellow officer, trying to keep him happy so he did not get reported but at the same time doing his own thing quietly.
This interplay between the various characters I found most impressive. I enjoyed Brunetti's sarcasm when dealing with officers he did not like and trust. But at the same to affection and understanding with his own team.
But the pace of the book seemed to me pedestrian and the characters with the exception of Brunetti seemed to lack any real depth. He was the one who I felt I understood his thoughts and motivations for.
However it did move quicker and towards the end became quite exciting and there was always a clearly defined sense of mystery about what really happened. The author was very good at maintaining this throughout the novel.
It was generally well written and with quite short and punchy chapters. The author writes superbly about Venice and it is lovely to read her interesting and detailed descriptions of this amazing city.
I think this book is ideal for holiday reading. I found it was easy to pick up and read a few chapters without losing the thread of the investigation. It is not too deep and there is clarity in the authors writing that I enjoyed.
The novel has 245 pages and is published by William Heinemann ISBN: 0434010677
Available from Amazon for £5.49.
The authors web site is: www.donnaleon.co.uk
I would not recommend this book to anyone, unless they are a fan of Donna Leon's work. It was for me a good insight into life as I perceive it in Venice, I enjoyed the author's description of the city but felt the storyline was not the most riveting I had ever read. That said I will certainly be trying another of her books myself to confirm what I think of her writing. Not sure what I'm going to tell my boss yet about it though!!
This review was written on both Dooyoo and Ciao under my name.
Thanks for reading!!
@CPTDANIELS January 2009
Donna Leon is another author, like Michael Dibdin and Magdalen Nabb, who has spent time in Italy and has used her time there to her advantage and written a series of crime fiction novels. Ive been meaning to pick up one of her novels for a while, because she has had good write-ups and got hold of this one, the eleventh in the series of books featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti.
Donna Leon has lived and worked in Venice for over twenty years, where she teaches English literature at university. She has also lived abroad in China and the Middle East. She wrote her first Brunetti novel in 1992, which was inspired by a fake plan that she and a friend made to kill someone they found obnoxious. She won a CWA Silver Dagger Award in 2000.
An elderly woman, Signora Battestini, detested by most of the neighbourhood, is found brutally murdered in her home. Despite the number of people who were happy to see her dead, suspicion immediately falls on her Romanian maid, who seems to have fled the murder scene. She is traced to a train on the Romanian border where Venetian police catch up with her. She flees and is mown down by a passing train. Case closed or so it seems.
Three weeks later, a neighbour whose flat overlooks Signora Battestinis, returns from abroad, where she had not heard about the murder. When she finds out, she immediately contacts the police. On the day of the murder, the neighbour, who had befriended the Romanian maid, had found her locked out of Signora Battestinis flat. Seen clearly by the neighbour, Signora Battestini refused to let her maid back in the flat to pick up her belongings. The neighbour took the maid to the station, where she gave her some money and saw her onto a train for Romania. The dead maids innocence proved, Brunetti is put in charge of the case to track down the real murderer.
Brunetti is clearly a character who has been developed over the course of the series, as such we dont find out a whole lot about him in this book. One factor that stands out though, is that, in a world where corrupt politics and bureaucracy are common, Brunetti stands about this and is known for his morals. The odd time that he needs to avoid the red tape, he is forced to turn a blind eye to his colleagues, who pretend that they have got their information from appropriate sources. This is the main thing that distinguishes Brunetti from Michael Dibdins Aurelio Zen apart from that, there are quite a few similarities both tend to work alone and are good at thinking outside the box. Just to further emphasise the difference between the two, Brunetti is in a secure relationship, married to his wife Paola, who is from wealthy and influential family. It is through Paola that Donna Leon tries to bring in a more literary, high-brow element in this book, religion and the seven deadly sins are brought in as a back-drop.
I did enjoy this book. I thought it was well-written and I quite liked Brunetti as a character. Unfortunately for Donna Leon, I read this after a spate of reading crime fiction based in Italy, both by Italian and English authors and although each author brings something different to the genre, I have got a little tired of them to the extent that I find that the plots are all beginning to merge into one. I also thought that the seven deadly sins concept was out of place in this book and totally unnecessary, adding nothing to my enjoyment of the plot. Compared to Magdalen Nabb, Donna Leons books are definitely superior, but I think if I had to choose between the main three English-speaking authors that base their work in Italy, Michael Dibdin has to win. His books have a raw element to them that I just didnt find here.
At the same time, after a long break from this type of book, I would like to return to Donna Leons work. There are definitely some good things about her work and I would like to start from the beginning of the series so that I can build up more of a picture of Brunetti. I think anyone wanting to read anything by Donna Leon, probably should start from the beginning. Im giving this book three stars, but I do still recommend this book to fans of crime fiction just make sure you read it as a one off and not as a long string of books set in Italy.
This book is available from Amazon for £3.99. Published by Arrow, it has 336 pages. ISBN: 0099446758
When the body of an wealthy elderly woman is found, brutally murdered in her Venetian flat, it is soon clear to the police that the prime suspect is her Rumanian maid, who has disappeared and is heading for Rumania. When the woman is approached by the border police as her train is leaving Italy, she makes a run for it and is killed as she crosses the tracks in front of an oncoming train. She has a considerable sum of money on her and her papers are obvious forgeries. Case closed. But when the old woman's neighbour returns from a business trip in London, it becomes clear that the maid could not have had time to kill the old woman before catching her train, and that the money on her was not stolen. Commissario Brunetti decides - unofficially - to take the case on himself. As Brunetti learns more of the old woman's family, it becomes clear that this is probably not a crime motivated by greed, rather that the probable motive connects with the temptations of lust. But perhaps Brunetti is following a false trail and thinking of the wrong deadly sin altogether.