National Post

Venice’s FINEST

Commissari­o Brunetti returns to catch the most elusive murderer — life

- Howard Shrier Weekend Post

Earthly Remains: A Commissari­o Guido Brunetti Mystery By Donna Leon Atlantic Monthly Press 304 pp; $36.50

It’s been 25 years since Commissari­o Guido Brunetti entered the world of crime fiction. And what an entrance it was.

“Because this was Venice, the police came by boat.”

With just nine words, Donna Leon showed she could set a scene and tell a story without getting in her own way, hardly something one takes for granted with first- time authors. Her Commissari­o, the star detective of Venice’s Questura, knew when to listen and when to listen even harder, searching for the truth behind and in between words.

From the start, Leon flaunted convention­s of crime fiction – was the murder in Death at La Fenice even a murder? – and thrived on ambiguitie­s from which most beginners shrink.

Fans will be delighted to know that her 26th book, Earthly Remains, continues that tradition, as the Commissari­o investigat­es a death that was most likely an accident but could also have been suicide, given the victim’s frame of mind. Murder never quite enters the equation.

Very little happens, in fact, but in the right hands, much can be made from nothing.

In a nutshell, Brunetti commits an act in the workplace that suggests he is ripe for stress leave. That he did it to protect his young colleague Puccetti is immaterial, because Brunetti does in fact need to get away. His ethics have been taking a beating at the hands of his long- time nemesis, the self- important Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta, for long enough. The compromise­s he has been forced to make have been eating at him lately.

With Venice stifling in a heat wave, he heads for the island of Sant’ Erasmo, where he spent summers as a youth, planning to row by day and read Pliny’s Natural History by night. One of his wife Paola’s many wealthy relatives owns a villa there and the elderly custodian, Davide, is a highly skilled rower who once won a regatta with Brunetti’s father.

A friendship of sorts forms as Brunetti regains his rowing skills under the older man’s tutelage. But the caretaker seems disturbed by something, often rambling to himself or to his dead wife, and his back is marked by strange red scars. They row around the island inspecting the beehives Davide set up in his retirement, only to find many of the queens dying, and the old man’s mood grows darker.

After Davide goes missing during a storm, Brunetti finds his body submerged with his capsized boat, a rope coiled tightly around one leg. Most likely an accident, but Brunetti – and Davide’s daughter – wonder whether Davide might have wanted to die. He had been heartbroke­n and lonely since his wife died of cancer a few years earlier, and he seemed haunted by the accident that scarred him so badly years before.

The matter is not Brunetti’s to solve; it is not even clear that there is anything to solve. But like so many enduring heroes, he lives by his own code. Though not hard- boiled in a traditiona­l sense, he could not sound more like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe when he explains why he needs to understand Davide’s death: “I never had the sense I knew him except that he was a decent, honourable man and now it pains me that he’s dead…. I’m sorry if that doesn’t sound like much.”

Brunetti enlists a few trusted colleagues to help him conduct an unofficial investigat­ion. He wants to know why Davide was visiting a woman on nearby Burano when he was so loyal to his dead wife. Why one of his co- workers, with similar l i vid scars, lives in a retirement villa that costs a hundred thousand euros a year. In My Venice and Other Essays, Leon, the one- time mystery critic at the London Sunday Times, wrote that novels of the genre’s Golden Age generally featured individual murderers who went about their business chastely. In an essay aimed at aspiring writers, she observed that newer novels encompasse­d larger social ills and crimes. “Will the resolution implicate one guilty party,” she asked readers, “or will a larger social or political group be implicated?”

The beauty of Earthly Remains is that it weaves true mystery out of ambiguity. Guilt is left to the eye of the beholder. On the surface, this crime novel might not contain an actual crime, yet it is clear that many a line has been crossed, that people did regrettabl­e things they thought they had to do to survive.

Having lived in Venice for well over 30 years, Leon knows her world intimately, yet never overloads the reader with research. She shows only the tip of her iceberg, confident in the richness that lurks underneath. The cast is small but memorable. The square miles she covers are few but exploding with life – at least where humans have yet to quash it.

Not one shot is fired in Earthly Remains; not one punch is thrown. But Leon is no softie. She shows the pounding Venice takes from tourism, pollution and its own bureaucrat­s. Her eye is sharp and unsentimen­tal, whether roaming through the hot, grimy city, a cold autopsy room, or lagoons so poisoned, even the tides around them no longer make sense.

More importantl­y, she takes the reader deep into the discontent­ed soul of a detective whose work these days leaves him feeling as Pliny must have when Vesuvius erupted and packed his lungs with ash.



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