24 March 2012

Review: BEASTLY THINGS, Donna Leon

  • Publisher:         Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  •  Imprint:         Atlantic Monthly Press
  •  Pub Date:         April 17, 2012 (Amazon Kindle April 5)
  •  ISBN:         9780802120236
  • Source:      ARC copy from Net Galley

Synopsis (from NetGalley)

Donna Leon's best-selling Commissario Guido Brunetti series has won her legions of passionate fans, reams of critical acclaim, and a place among the top ranks of international crime writers. Brunetti, both a perceptive investigator and a warmhearted family man, is one of the treasured characters of contemporary mystery fiction. Through him, Leon has explored Venice in all its aspects: its history, beauty, food, and social life, but also the crime and corruption that seethe below the surface of La Serenissima.

When the body of a man is found in a canal, damaged by the tides, carrying no wallet, and wearing only one shoe, Brunetti has little to work with. No local has filed a missing-person report, and no hotel guests have disappeared. Where was the crime scene? And how can he identify the man when he can't show pictures of his face? The autopsy shows a way forward: it turns out the man was suffering from a rare, disfiguring disease. With Inspector Vianello, Brunetti canvasses shoe stores, and winds up on the mainland in Mestre, outside his usual sphere. From a shopkeeper, they learn that the man had a kindly way with animals.

At the same time, animal rights and meat consumption are quickly becoming preoccupying issues at the Venice Questura, and in Brunetti's home, where conversation at family meals offers a window into the joys and conflicts of Italian life. Perhaps with the help of Signorina Elettra, Brunetti and Vianello can identify the man and understand why someone wanted him dead. As subtle and engrossing as the other Commissario Brunetti tales, Leon's Beastly Things is immensely enjoyable, intriguing, and ultimately moving.

My Take

At the heart of BEASTLY THINGS is a murder mystery, the plot is tight, and the methods of detection inspirational, but for much of the novel other issues, not entirely Venetian, take centre stage. Guido Brunetti is pretty sure he recognises the man's face a farmers' protest the previous autumn and the wonderful Signorina Elettra manages to find his face in footage of the protest. But he is not a farmer. The search for his identity and the reason for his murder leads Brunetti and his team into a world of corruption.

Brunetti and Vianello pay a visit to an horrific slaughterhouse on the mainland at Mestre but in a sense what goes on in the management of this slaughterhouse and others in the near region is worse than the actual slaughter of the animals that they witness.
It evokes a deep feeling of melancholy in Brunetti about the state of things. He seems more bitter and disillusioned than has emerged in earlier novels.
    Before Brunetti could answer, they were disturbed by the appearance from the left of a enormous – did it have eight decks? Nine? Ten? – cruise ship. It trailed meekly behind a gallant tug, but the fact that the hawser connecting them dipped limply into the water gave the lie to the appearance of whose motors were being used to propel them and which boat decided the direction.
    What a perfect metaphor, Brunetti thought: it looked like the government was pulling the Mafia into port to decommission and destroy it, but the ship that appeared to be doing the pulling had by far the smaller motor, and any time the other one chose, it could give a yank on the hawser and remind the other boat of where the power lay.
    In no way deterred by the failure of the book to spin up a winning combination, Brunetti opened to Book Eleven. ‘No thief can steal your will.’ This time he closed the book and set it aside. Again, he gave his attention to the light in the window and the statement he had just read: neither provided illumination. 
    Government ministers were arrested with frightening frequency; the head of government himself boasted, in the middle of a deepening financial crisis, that he didn’t have financial worries and had nineteen houses; Parliament was reduced to an open sewer. And where were the angry mobs in the piazzas? 
    Who stood up in Parliament to discuss the bold-faced looting of the country? But let a young and virginal girl be killed, and the country went mad; slash a throat and the press was off and running for days. What will was left among the public that had not been destroyed by television and the penetrant vulgarity of the current administration? ‘Oh, yes, a thief can steal your will. And has,’ he heard himself say aloud.
    He had been curt; of course he had been curt, but he had not wanted to be sucked into yet another discussion of the crime. It troubled him that many people had so readily come to treat murder as a kind of savage joke, to which the only response was grotesque humour. Perhaps this reaction was no more than magic thinking, a manifestation of the hope that laughter would keep it from happening again, or from happening to the person who laughed.
Once again, BEASTLY THINGS comes into my category of crime fiction that makes you think. This is what we have come to expect from Donna Leon but from this novel you get the sense that in Italy corruption is winning the battle. How long can Guido Brunetti and his team fight the good fight?

My rating: 4.5

Other reviews of Donna Leon titles on MiP


Anonymous said...

Kerrie - Thanks for the fine review. I've become quite attached to this series, so I'm glad to see that this is another good entry into it. You raise a good question, too: at what point do we give up and say that corruption has won? One would hope never, but Brunetti faces awfully long odds...

kathy d. said...

Never give up.

This is one of my favorites series. It never disappoints. The Brunettis, Elettra Zorzi, Vianello are like family to me at this point.

And there are always social issues to ponder blended right into the story.

I have had this on hold at the library for awhile and am awaiting its availability.

Maxine Clarke said...

I am reading the latest Camilleri (to be translated) at the moment and one gets the same sense here, too - the war against corruption is never-ending and can it be won?

I haven't read this one yet but I usually do read Donna Leon so I expect I'll be reading it soon. Thanks for the nice review.

Katan said...

Sadly, I thought this time the story lines were too predictable early on. Even more disappointing was the lack of what makes Brunetti such an endearing character for me: his home life. (2.5)


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