Drawing Conclusions (Commissario Guido Brunetti Mysteries (Paperback))
Familiarity may breed contempt in daily life, but novelists, particularly those who write mysteries, long ago discovered it doesn’t hold true on the page. So sharp was the public’s pain of separation when Sherlock Holmes plunged to his death at Reichenbach Falls that Conan Doyle was obliged to resurrect him. Agatha Christie masterfully deployed not one, but four continuing characters in Miss Marple, Poirot, and in her two blackmailers-turned-sleuths, Tommy and Tuppence. Far from growing weary of these familiars, we enter their stories with the contented sigh of old friends.
So it is with Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti, whom Ms. Leon first introduced in 1992 and whom she now, 19 years and as many novels later, dispatches on a new case in Drawing Conclusions.
Brunetti, who has dealt in the past with a poisoned orchestra conductor at La Fenice, fishermen entangled with the Mafia and predatory pornographers, now faces the apparent natural death of an elderly women with no known enemies, found dead behind the locked door of her apartment. But as Brunetti takes on the case after such a grim discovery, we also smile at his good-humored banter with Paola, his college professor wife whom we’ve come to know; take satisfaction in the growing maturity of the couple’s two children, mere infants when we first met them; and relish Brunetti’s continued chaste longing for the charming and brainy Signorina Elettra, secretary to Brunetti’s arch-nemesis and superior, Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta.
Adding to the comfort level for Brunetti fans is Ms. Leon’s fondness for the Commissario’s home turf, Venice, which has become as much of a character as Brunetti himself, a metaphor for the hidden, the secret, the unpleasant hiding behind a deceptively brilliant facade.
Ms. Leon, American-born but living in Italy for nearly 30 years, has never intended writing the mystery-as-travelogue, familiar with the gritty facts of Italian life, and isn’t above taking a jab here and there at Italy’s byzantine bureaucracy and tribal loyalties. Nor does she shy away from the anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping Europe as a story element. “If the Chinese in Europe were all wearing uniforms, we’d be forced to see it as the invasion it is,” one character, who happens to be a border policeman, tells Brunetti in this new story. But Ms. Leon deploys the immigration theme in service to her plot, and cleverly so; for, when we reach the final pages of the ironically titled Drawing Conclusions, we realize how far astray Ms. Leon has led us.
There are new revelations about Brunetti here, too. Readers have admired him for his cool logic and reasoning powers, but in this new story Brunetti’s quest is set off by a heretofore unrealized and intuitive sixth sense as he gazes on the body of the dead woman. Brunetti admits “the possibility of . . . something that, though unseen, left traces. He felt those traces here: this was a troubled death.” And so, resisting his superior’s desire to mark the death down as the naturally-caused one it appears to be, Brunetti sets off through the labyrinth that is Venice to find his killer.
Readers who favor a brisk pace and startling revelations will be disappointed by Commissario Brunetti’s deliberate investigations. Ms. Leon unfolds her plot slowly, planting her misdirections and clues subtly and leading us to a conclusion that is more compassionate than surprising.
For character-driven mysteries such as Ms. Leon’s, the mystery is a mere device for exploring human nature. She is more interested in why we indulge in sometimes inexplicable behaviors that threaten misfortune, danger, or even death; and how, despite those behaviors, life continues on, oblivious to our individual failings. “It puts one foot in front of the other, whistling a tune that is dreary or merry by turn,” she writes, “but it always puts one foot in front of the other and moves on.” And in that, too, we find comfort.