Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"It's Always Who You Know": Italy and the Crime Fiction of Donna Leon and Magdalen Nabb

Reading a crime fiction series creates a familiarity that can be either profoundly irritating or deeply comforting -- much like the experience of being with "family." Though the details of any given day are unknown in advance, you have a good idea ahead of time of what your mother will expect from you, what your brother is going to crow about, which parts of the day your spouse will re-tell for your attention. In the same way, to read a later volume in a series where you've already consumed the earlier ones is to know what to expect in terms of how bruised the souls of the novel are likely to be and become, and what level of redemption may be possible. Or -- how depressed you're likely to feel at the end ...

So, when I wanted to give myself a mini-vacation this summer, I picked up the 2009 Venice volume from Donna Leon, ABOUT FACE. From Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti, I expect some familiar patterns: that he will agonize over his responsibilities as superior officer in his police job at the Questura; that his wife Paola will challenge his perceptions, bringing him the viewpoint of an intelligent and loving feminist; that he will be forced to reconsider his roles as husband and father; and that the peculiarities of Venice as a city of water, where even the public transportation floats, will shape the crimes that confront him and the routes toward their solution. And oh yes, there will be some delicious moments that reveal how the administrative assistant in the office, Signorina Elettra, really manages almost everything there, especially the stream of information that only she is capable of dipping into.

ABOUT FACE covers most of these, while going unexpectedly deeply into the issues of violence against women, as well as international crime that profits from waste disposal. The title can be read in several ways, but one that leaps out immediately is that Guido confronts the frozen, overly "lifted" face of Franca Marinella, a close friend of his mother-in-law. How can he "read" from this face? What does this woman want from him, and how should he handle the sense of companionship that she evokes in him through discussion of books?

Brunetti's wife Paola watches him struggle, and periodically cuts into his path with insight and sometimes anger. At first, she compares her husband to one of her favorite authors, Henry James, defending the similarity of the two men by saying, "You want to understand things, Guido. It's probably why you're a policeman. ... But you also want other people to understand those things. ... Just as he did."

Because Paola's parents are immensely wealthy and socially powerful, Brunetti's stance toward them has long been a struggle to present a sense of dignity, in spite of his workaday career in the detective force. In ABOUT FACE, for the first time, both the Comte and his wife want, even need, something from Brunetti -- each very differently. Is it even possible to consider rising to the level of friendship with the aging, lonely Comte? And how much pain will Brunetti share with Paola's mother at the point when, inadvertently, he calls her "Mamma" for the first time in the years of his marriage?

Bringing criminals to justice is only half of the labor here; the other half is learning about himself and the people he cares about. Leon lingers in the moments of realization, letting the drifting snow matter intensely, as the lonely sense of being isolated from others grows:
Brunetti lay on the sofa, sipping at his grappa, waiting for Paola to come home, and thought about Saint Rita di Cascia, who protected against loneliness. 'Santa Rita,' he prayed, 'aiutaci.' But whom, he wondered, was he asking her to help? He set his empty glass on the table and closed his eyes.

When the Commissario finally sees beyond the faces he has taken for granted, the solution is as sad as a winter day, and in another sense almost sweet, like coming home to tell the truth about something terrible, to someone who cares.

So -- sure, the plotting is tight, the crimes merit attention, the co-workers and their stakes are impressive. Most of all, Leon creates connection with the characters that she nurtures.

Soho Crime blessed us this summer with two softcover editions from the work of the late lamented Magdalen Nabb -- also set in Italy, but in Florence, strained by heat and drought and the desperation of the disenfranchised. And although Salvatore Guarnaccia, Marshal-in-Chief of the Carabinieri at the Pitti Palace Station, is married, his wife Teresa rarely comes forward as he sweats his overload of crimes to solve and people to trust -- or not.

THE MARSHAL AT THE VILLA TORRINI first came out in 1993. It could as easily have been set in 2009: A woman whose prestigious writing career is dwarfed by her issues at home is dead, in a bathtub. But what caused her death, and who will benefit from it? Worst of all, the pathologist can't find a reason for Celia Carter to have drowned "like a baby" in her own tub. It's a serious setback for the Marshal:
The Marshal had himself driven back to Pitti without saying a word. He'd been too complacent, sure that his autopsy would show up a murder which would have cleared his path for a thorough investigation of Forbes. Well, he'd been wrong, and having been wrong he'd wasted time. He should have been looking for the other woman, finding out what the man inherited, establishing a motive. He should have been doing all this in any case, so that, if the autopsy results had been useful, he'd have been ready ...

But the Marshal is off balance at each turn, and the reason is squarely his own problem: He is dieting. And, of course, cheating on the diet when all else fails to comfort him in the midst of his sorrow.

Here again, it's the emotions of the detective that press the plot shifts to higher significance. When the Marshal grieves, the scene offers sorrow and loss, and little respite. Not until the truth is excavated will there be a chance to escape the guilt that dogs this investigator. But his is an echo of the guilt and shame in the family he's investigating, where none of the emotions ring true, and every person hides their pain and anger until the Marshal can find a way to lance the illness.

VITA NUOVA was published after Nabb's 2007 death, and moved into softcover this year. In its placement of the relatively humble, working-class investigator against the terrors of the wealthy family where a young single mother has been killed, the crime novel recalls an older series: that of Don Camillo, an Italian priest whose feet never left the dust of his homely village. Marshal Guarnaccia struggles in a city, and the crime is braided around prostitution and the trafficking of young girls, but Guarnaccia tackles the sophisticated crimes with a lens that sees family and relationships and the battle to survive as primary.

Again, it's the sense of knowing the detective, of aching with him -- diet or not -- through the humiliations that come with his job and the sorrows of meeting death, that drives the book toward revelation. Nabb paints tragedy as vividly as the Italian painters. But she frames it within the human longing for love and clarity, and gives us a man to care about.

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