Friday, April 29, 2011

The Complexities of Being a Good Person -- and a Police Investigator: Donna Leon, DRAWING CONCLUSIONS

In her 20th book in the Venetian mystery series featuring Guido Brunetti, Commisario di Polizia, Donna Leon presents this mature husband, father, and negotiator of police business at his most complicated form yet. Gently probing a death that "feels wrong" to him -- but can't be clearly named a murder -- Brunetti clings to a need to find some kind of justice for an elderly woman who'd been a good listener and perhaps too good at telling awkward, even painful, truths.

And in the pursuit of truth and justice for "Mamma Costanza" -- called a "good woman" by her neighbors and family -- Brunetti finds himself smoothly telling lie after lie. It's not new for him to lie to his boss, of course; Vice-Questore Patta is such a political creature that the only way Brunetti and his colleagues Vianello and Signora Elletra can do their jobs is to constantly distract and manage Patta and the slithery Lieutenant Scarpa. But to the son of the dead woman? To the nuns at a nursing home where she'd been a volunteer? And to knowingly assist Signora Elletra in her clever manipulation of the Venetian databanks and not-very-just court system? This is a new Brunetti.

Or is it? He's always been passionate about working the system on behalf of the victims of crime -- and victims of the system, come to that. Maybe it's simply a Brunetti with his doubts exposed, his sense of "wrong" elevated, as if he were able to carry with him the smart, caring insights of his wife Paola as he walks the alleys and rides the canals of the ancient city. Here he is, waiting for some revelation from another elderly woman who seems somehow linked to the crime, but who has taken shelter among the nuns:
He sat quietly, trying to sense how aware, or unaware, she was of his presence, and as time passed he began to suspect that she was as sensitive to his presence as he was to hers. He let more time pass. Occasionally people walked past the door, but because Brunetti was sitting to the side of it, no one noticed that he was there. No one stopped to look in, nor did anyone come in to speak to Signora Sartori. After ten minutes or so Brunetti began to suspect that the noveices had forgotten about him or perhaps assumed that he had left. ... The silence and the passing of time began to weigh on him, but he forced himself to remain both silent and still.
And at last, the woman who holds the key to the mystery breaks the silence, and gives him the small clue he needs to press forward.

This is a quiet book, reflective, moody, as though both author and characters have paused to ponder the weight of 20 volumes of narrative. And it's a tender one. In the long run, almost everything wrong in the lives the inspector is viewing turns out to have come from love -- as does his own career.

Don't let this be your "first ever" Donna Leon book. Read a couple of her other titles first -- here's a website from her publisher to give you the list. Then when you enter the gentle pace of DRAWING CONCLUSIONS, you'll have a sense of the view that Brunetti has climbed to reach.

There's also a good Public Radio interview with Leon about this book; I'm glad it can easily be replayed at the radio website, here, along with an excerpt from the first chapter.

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