If you are not reading Donna Leon’s novels with Venice Police Commissario Guido Brunetti, then you are missing out. Leon, an American expatriate residing in Venice, has been writing these mystery novels for almost 20 years. Very reader friendly, there is no need to start with a particular book. In fact, this 19th and latest installment in the series is a wonderful place to begin and quickly acquire an addiction.
A QUESTION OF BELIEF follows the pattern established by its predecessors. The narrative is well-paced, which is not to say fast. In keeping with the sweltering heat and humidity associated with Venice in summer, Leon moves Brunetti slowly but most assuredly through the streets and through his investigation, which of course is never permitted to interrupt the opportunity to eat and drink along the way. Notwithstanding the foregoing, however, Brunetti finds himself gently immersed in two cases that are somewhat outside of his official duties.
He is brought into the first by his friend, Police Inspector Leonardo Vianello, who has become concerned with his aunt’s well-being. Vianello’s Zia Anita has taken to withdrawing large sums from the bank account of the family business and is apparently using the funds to consult with an astrologist possessed of a shady past, much to the consternation of her family. The elderly woman is not breaking any laws and has a perfect right to do what she is doing. The family is nonetheless concerned that she is being taken advantage of, and Brunetti, at Vianello’s request, utilizes the resources of the Venice police to follow Zia Anita to determine precisely what she is doing and with whom. The method by which Brunetti diverts police resources to do this is worth the price of admission to A QUESTION OF BELIEF all by itself.
The second case is brought to Brunetti by Toni Brusca, a friend of Brunetti’s who is the head of the department of the Venetian municipal employment records. Brusca’s inquiry involves an enigma in the scheduling and disposition of civil cases. It appears that the cases assigned to one judge in particular, Judge Colettini, are taking a particularly long time to be heard and decided upon, with the delay possibly deliberately accruing to the benefit of one of the parties. There also appears to be some collusion, professionally and possibly personally, between the judge and Araldo Fontana, a longtime clerk of the court who is in charge of transporting the case files to and from the courtrooms. Brunetti sets Signorina Elettra, the lovely and extremely competent administrative assistant for his office, onto the task of some quiet and off-the-books Internet research into the backgrounds of both the judge and the clerk.
None of this is expected to set anyone’s pulse pounding rapidly. Corruption? In the Italian government? How could this be? Yet the quality of Leon’s word craft is such that the reader is involved and caring from the first page onward, making even something so mundane as Brunetti’s dinnertime conversation with his wife and children concerning their upcoming vacation amusing and interesting. Things kick up a notch when that family vacation actually begins. Brunetti and his loved ones are on the train, looking forward to a week in the cooling elevations of Glorenza, when he is called back to Venice. A violent murder has occurred and it is directly linked to one of his investigations held in abeyance for his vacation. Brunetti’s interrogations into the matter, conducted gently but firmly, reveal one tragic secret after another. And when an unexpected incident in the coroner’s office sheds light on Brunetti’s other investigation, it appears that the low-key but quietly dogged commissario will be able to join his family for the remainder of their vacation after all. Perhaps.
You won’t find an abundance of violence here. Instead, you can expect clever plotting, solid characterization and fine storytelling. If you are wondering why Time named Leon one of the top 50 mystery writers, then A QUESTION OF BELIEF will answer that question conclusively.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011