Review

About Face: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery

by Donna Leon

Donna Leon, an American who is a resident of Venice, Italy, is
the author of a critically acclaimed mystery series with Guido
Brunetti, a Venetian police commissioner who is still principled
enough to bemoan the fact that those who commit crimes are seldom,
if ever, punished, at least by the institutions set up for the
purpose of doing so. This particular musing on Brunetti’s
part sets up an ultimately ironic scenario in ABOUT FACE,
Leon’s latest work.

A principled man, Brunetti struggles to work within a system
that is corrupt in subtle manners and otherwise, in the same way
that one might seek to pass through a curbside puddle, minimizing
the damage to shoes and clothes. Brunetti’s wife, Paola, is a
hereditary contessa who nonetheless teaches school. Their
relationship --- as with most marriages that weather the test of
time --- is, if not passionate, comfortable, but believably so. As
Brunetti notes during ABOUT FACE, they don’t hold
grudges.

Brunetti is not entirely comfortable with the wealth that his
wife’s family holds, so we find him somewhat ill at ease at
the beginning of the book as he dutifully attends with his wife a
dinner party at the home of his in-laws. He is seated at dinner
across from Franca Marinello, a woman who is striking for both good
and unfortunate reasons. Married to a fabulously successful
businessman some three decades older than her, Franca wears the
facial disfigurations of excessive plastic surgery gone awry.
Nonetheless, he is quietly though obviously quite taken with her,
due in no small part to her intimate familiarity with classical
literature.

Maurizio Cataldo, Franca’s husband, is seeking to do
business with Conte Falier, Brunetti’s father-in-law. Cataldo
has a whispered reputation for being perhaps somewhat untrustworthy
--- how could he be successful otherwise? --- and Falier, being a
careful man, subsequently asks Brunetti to use the formal and
informal channels that the police possess to check out his
dealings.

Meanwhile, Guarino, an enigmatic Carabiniere (military
policeman) from outside of Venice, is seeking the assistance of
Brunetti’s station in the investigation into the murder of
one of Guarino’s informants. The matter is tenuously tied to
Venice since one of the informant’s criminal contacts --- a
man who may have been responsible for the murder --- was known to
schedule clandestine meetings in the city. The matter is dumped
into Brunetti’s lap; notwithstanding the fact that there is
little to go on other than a picture of the person of interest,
Brunetti uses a combination of dogged police work, guesswork,
instinct and logic to identify the unknown man. When his first
steps toward tentative success lead to tragic results, he becomes
more determined to succeed, even as he comes to learn that there
may be a connection between the man and Franca, with whom he
remains platonically, if not secretly, enchanted.

ABOUT FACE is primarily an intellectual work; as with the best
music, sometimes what is not obvious is often as important as what
is obvious. Such a state of affairs is why the explosive climax is
so startling, even when one comes to expect it. Leon makes much of
otherwise harmless occurrences, and the denouement, where all is
made clear, is quite credible. Although the villain of the piece is
a brooding, off-page presence until well into the final third of
the book, the results of the unfortunate aspects of his personality
resonate throughout. While ABOUT FACE is the 18th of Leon’s
Brunetti novels, it can be read without reference to what has gone
before. Jump on here, by all means, but leave time to catch up. You
will want to read every word of every Brunetti book.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 22, 2010

About Face: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery
by Donna Leon

  • Publication Date: March 30, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
  • ISBN-10: 0143116592
  • ISBN-13: 9780143116592