It did not take me long to put the name "Donna Leon" on my list of must-read authors. I was initially surprised to discover that Leon has been active and revered for some time, publishing an enviable number of books featuring Venetian police Commissario Guido Brunetti. A likable and persistent protagonist, Brunetti is a dogged pursuer of the truth, willing to quietly go over and around official obstacles in pursuit. His tenaciousness is demonstrated quite effectively in Leon's 20th Brunetti novel.
DRAWING CONCLUSIONS begins quietly enough with the discovery of the body of Costanza Altavilla, an older widow, in her apartment. It is the conclusion of the medical examiner that she died of a heart attack, and indeed, the deceased was undergoing treatment for cardiac problems at the time of her death. There is evidence of extraneous trauma --- a cut on her head, some light bruising around her neck and shoulders --- but nothing that she would not have necessarily sustained in falling. Brunetti, though, is not entirely convinced that Altavilla's death was due to natural causes. He is also puzzled because there are some things in the apartment --- empty picture-hanging nails, clothes that obviously are not hers --- that are...strange. Not suspicious, necessarily. Just strange.
Brunetti begins by pulling one evidentiary thread, which leads to a second thread, and to another. Soon he finds himself being led in different directions, neither of which are particularly suspicious. Altavilla was involved with a group that provided support to battered, abused and exploited women. She also volunteered at a local home for the aged, where she was especially popular with some of the residents. Rather than solving one mystery --- if there is one to be solved --- Brunetti finds himself confronted with two more. Yet the question remains: Has a crime been committed? The answer is not so easily obtained or understood.
While DRAWING CONCLUSIONS is not as finely paced as some of its predecessors, Leon's writing remains sharp and smart. Her characterizations are first-rate, even as she leaves the introduction of one important person too close to the end of the book while another is never encountered at all. It is to Leon's credit that she can do such things and yet skillfully leave the reader feeling fulfilled rather than cheated, delighted instead of exasperated. Of course, the ensemble of characters who support Brunetti have much to do with this, particularly the wonderfully enigmatic Signorina Elettra, who is ostensibly a police administrative assistant yet who is, by turns, Brunetti's confidante and informant on matters political and otherwise. It would be easy to involve Brunetti with Elettra on something other than a professional level, Brunetti's marriage notwithstanding. And indeed, while there is not the spark of sexual tension in the scenes in which they interact, one could be forgiven for imagining that a hum or thrum can be heard.
But Brunetti not only remains devoted to his wife, he demonstrates why, with no more than a few words of conversation or a quiet touch. That, my friends, is brilliant writing. And that is what you get from Donna Leon and DRAWING CONCLUSIONS.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 25, 2011