Monday, May 24, 2010

A Permeable Wall Between Crime and Family: Donna Leon, A QUESTION OF BELIEF

The nineteenth Donna Leon mystery featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti arrived in time to lure me away from the garden. Ardent sunshine, nights that are finally free of frost, and the threat of dandelions taking root everywhere drive me to spade up the vegetable garden's crumbly soil. There's a lot less pressure to read the next mystery -- but a new book from Leon exerts a quiet allure, a promise that somewhere in the world, stewardship and forgiveness extend to humans, as well as to the earth.

Venice is baking in summer heat as A QUESTION OF BELIEF opens. The Commissario, like everyone else in the city, longs for a vacation in some cooler place, and this time he's put the pieces together to take his family to the mountains. He only needs to clear his desk to some degree, as he fantasizes about whether "crime" itself might take a summer holiday -- after all, the tourists aren't thronging Venice at this season, so the pickpockets must have gone elsewhere. Even murder might take time off.

Yet two quirky situations arrive in the hands of people Guido respects, and although he's not sure they represent crimes, he'll investigate to some degree. One is a curious pattern of delayed cases at the local court, brought to his attention by his old friend Toni Brusca, who has spotted the paper trail of what may be more than just favors among lawyers and judges. Most attractive in this case is the willing participation of Signorina Elletra, nominally the administrative assistant to the unpleasant Vice-Questore Patta (the political creature who runs the police force) but actually the brains and heart behind much of the Questura's investigative and personal strengths. Even Guido exerts extra effort to win Signorina Elletra's half smiles and approval.

He's not alone in this -- one of his men idly speculates on how good life might be if this woman ran the Questura -- and his colleague Inspector Vianello has been learning computer search skills from Elletra. But Vianello is helpless in the face of a family problem: his aunt's increasing faith in and fiscal support of an astrologer. Trust built from years of collaboration allows Vianello to bring the issue to Guido's attention. And after all, if the astrologer is bilking one old woman, might he not be defrauding others?

Inevitably, threats, risk, and murder arise from these humble beginnings -- but not until the Commissario is literally on the train to his vacation retreat with Paola and their two teenaged children. Friends of this series already can guess that Paola will send Guido back to the city to deal with the disaster, as well as with the probability that his gentle probing has backfired horribly. It's part of the enduring charm of this series that almost all of the stress and intensity of Commissario Brunetti's life are at the Questura and in the pursuit of criminals. His family remains his shelter, his predictable comfort and strength. And this makes the reading of a Donna Leon mystery gentle and soothing, even as crime itself turns grim and malicious in front of Guido and his team.

Moreover, what Guido and Paola discuss in terms of how they are raising their children turns out to shape the Commissario's approach to his work-life conundrums:
On his way back to the Questura, again taking the vaporetto to avoid the sun, Brunetti considered what he and Paola had said to one another and what Paola had not said to the children at lunch. How many times had he heard people use the phrase, 'Governo Ladro'? And how many times had he agreed in silence that the government was a thief?
So the contemplations that root in a solid and intelligent homelife become the ground for Guido's decisions as the cases in front of him unfold. Signorina Elettra will approve.

How rare is it that a well-plotted crime novel reinforces a bent toward kindness, courtesy, and honor? Leon does it again and again. Thank goodness. Or ... grazie.

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