BEASTLY THINGS by Donna Leon is a comfortably and wonderfully familiar addition to the canon of Venice’s Commissario Guido Brunetti. The wonderful cast of supporting characters is basically unchanged. Brunetti’s professor-spouse stays quietly supportive, and his precocious (and slowly aging) children continue to do well in their studies. The Questura, Brunetti’s police headquarters, is also the same. The wide range of competency and otherwise among Brunetti’s fellow police officers remains undisturbed, while Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta, Brunetti’s quietly corrupt boss, shows no hint of rocking the profitable boat he has built for himself.
"The charm and attraction of the series is the always-entertaining experience of watching Brunetti as he is given a new and confounding puzzle and slowly but steadily works it out.... If you have yet to experience Leon or Brunetti, there is no time like now to start, and no better place than BEASTLY THINGS."
The only real change for Brunetti is the acquisition of a computer that he can barely operate; for this, he must frequently rely on the enigmatic Signorina Elettra, Patta’s secretary and the real power in the Questura. Elettra, it must be noted, may be a supporting character, but she is arguably the most indispensable presence (next to Brunetti) in the series. She is able to quietly cut corners when obtaining information, utilizing a combination of hacking skills, networking, and yes, her feminine charms to acquire what her patrolmen require.
The charm and attraction of the series is the always-entertaining experience of watching Brunetti as he is given a new and confounding puzzle and slowly but steadily works it out. The puzzle in BEASTLY THINGS is the discovery of a dead body in a Venetian canal. The victim, who bears no identification, died of knife wounds, as opposed to drowning; his only noteworthy characteristics are the physical symptoms of a rare but disfiguring disease, and his clothing, which is distinctive in its quality. Brunetti takes these two slender threads and begins working backward from them in a number of different directions to ascertain the victim’s identity and, from there, to determine who might have had the motive and opportunity for murder. The identity portion of the equation comes indirectly from a somewhat unexpected source --- a fellow policeman --- while the latter is a result of tedious investigation and, in the end, very smart police work.
The trail that Brunetti follows takes him, among other places, to the BEASTLY THINGS of the title: a slaughterhouse. The violence here is unsettling, unpleasant and, no doubt, accurate, the type of thing that causes one to at least consider (however briefly) swearing off pork and beef forever. There are reminders of the incident throughout the remainder of the novel, and in fact it serves as a bit of a metaphor for the murder itself. As expected, Brunetti closes the case, and the killer of the formerly unidentified victim is brought to justice; the victim achieves a peace and appreciation at the end of the story that he had been denied in life. The last few pages are worth the price of admission all by themselves. But no peeking.
Donna Leon is one of those very few authors whose work is popular not only among mystery aficionados but also with those who do not regularly read the genre (or any others). I am constantly surprised by encounters with people who tell me, “I don’t read much, but I read those Venice police stories by Donna Leon.” If you have yet to experience Leon or Brunetti, there is no time like now to start, and no better place than BEASTLY THINGS.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 19, 2012