Mystery author #51: Donna Leon

I think it was Maxine who first recommended Donna Leon to me, and after that I got several more recommendations for her books, so I decided to include her in the challenge.

Series detective: Commissario Guido Brunetti
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Venice, contemporary
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Title: The Death of Faith (alternative title: Quietly in Their Sleep)
No. in series: 6
Year of publication: 1997

SPOILERS ahead

Story:
A young nun who has left her order comes to Commissario Brunetti with a story of some deaths at a nursing home where she worked that she finds mysterious but that at first appear to be perfectly normal. She seems to suspect that members of her order or of the Catholic church may be involved. When Brunetti starts digging, the nun is attacked and Brunetti’s boss tries to have him stop the investigation, which just makes him more determined to get to the bottom of the case.

Review:
The writing and characterisations in the book are very good. The characters come alive on the page, which is always a bonus in any book. There is a nice mixture of humour and seriousness, and the story is tightly plotted and intriguing. So far, so good. Then Agnus Dei pops up.

Have I ever mentioned that one of the three things in mysteries that I hate more than unrealistic suicide endings are secret societies? I don’t mind having a member of a secret society doing their thing independently of the society or a leader of such a society being taken on with the understanding that their capture will destroy the whole organisation, but several members acting on orders from mysterious untouchable higher-ups takes away the one-on-one struggle between the detective and the villain and reduces the story to one about a hopeless struggle against an unbeatable enemy, which is not what I want to read about in a mystery. From the appearance of Agnus Dei onward the plot plunges inevitably towards the second thing about mysteries that I hate more than suicide endings, namely that justice is not served, stopping on the way at the third thing I hate more than suicide endings: the device of the froth-at-the-mouth insane person whom the villain uses as an instrument of murder.

Stock plot elements do not have to become cliches when skillfully used, and they are used with some skill here. Unfortunately they happen to be exactly the kind of devices designed to put my hackles up, meaning that I couldn’t really enjoy the book. Yet I read on, hoping that Brunetti would find a way to see justice done, but it didn’t happen. There is a feeble attempt to draw the reader’s attention away from the lack of resolution by introducing a side-plot where justice does get served, but it is not a successful one. An additional annoyance is a minor plot thread that is left dangling, almost as if the author didn't think of the angle that immediately occurred to me when I realised it would not be resolved.

Rating: Probably not the best of Brunetti books to begin an exploration of this author. 1+ star.
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One of the unwritten rules I set myself when I began this reading challenge was to give authors a second chance if I happened on a book I didn’t like, so I did read a second Brunetti book:

Title: Through a Glass, Darkly
No. in series: 15
Year of publication: 2006

Story:
A woman seeks advice from Commissario Brunetti about her father, who has repeatedly threatened her environmentalist husband with harm or death should he set foot inside the family glass foundry on Murano island. While Brunetti is inclined to think the man unlikely to follow up on the threats, he does a little unofficial investigating just in case, which puts him on the trail of nefarious doings on the island that have led to murder. Just when it seems the investigation has reached a dead end, a coincidence puts Brunetti back on the trail.

Review: I liked this book better than the previous book. For one thing it delivers what the other book didn’t, namely justice. While this justice admittedly takes place off stage, it is clearly suggested that the villain does not get away scot free, as he (or rather they) did in the other book. This time around, it’s the plotting that is weak, something I could not say about The Death of Faith, which I disliked because it veered into thriller territory, contained plot devices I detest, and didn’t give a satisfactory ending, but at least the plot was tight and somewhat suspenseful.

In this book, it meanders all over the place, and does not deliver on the momentous environmental scandal that the build-up promises, instead falling down limply into a resolution involving what is really just the personal tragedy of someone whose ancestor's sins come back to haunt him with a vengeance.

Rating: A mystery that struggles for greatness, but falls short. 2+ stars.

Verdict:
After all the recommendations, these two books were a disappointment. If they are anything to judge from, Leon would seem to be a somewhat uneven author, and not always in the same area of the writing craft. I am hoping the basic formula* I noticed both books have in common is not a feature of all her books, because if it is, I would have to cross her off my list of authors I want to read more books by. However, she writes interesting characters and has managed to make the fascinating city of Venice into a definite character in both books, which is why I am giving her a third chance. Next time I will try to find her most highly regarded book to read and review.
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*This is the formula, for those interested: someone asks Brunetti to investigate something seemingly innocuous, which leads to the discovery of something more suspicious. His superior tries to shut down the investigation, and Signorina Elettra blithely conjures up some classified information to help the case along.

Yours truly,
The (Very Grumpy) Reviewer

Comments

maxine said…
I'm very sorry if it was me who recommended Donna Leon, as you don't like her - I think her books are quite uneven and I don't have strong memories of these two. I have enjoyed several of them.

If I were asked to recommend an Italian crime fiction author or series, I would not hesitate to choose either Andrea Camilleri (set in Sicily) or Gianrico Carofiglio (set in Bari). Both are brilliant and as written by actual Italians, and for other reasons, I think more authentic than Leon. I would not say the actual mysteries are that brilliant, but the atmosphere is wonderful.

Apologies again if it was me who recommended Leon - I don't quite remember, I am afraid I have a bad memory.

I'm very into Scandianavian crime fiction at the moment - and from your own "neck of the woods" not only have I loved all the Indridasons so far translated, but I very much liked Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurdardottir. Have you read that?
Bibliophile said…
No need to apologise, Maxine. I may simply have ended up with bad examples of Leon's writing.

Andra Camilleri is great. I have read three of his books and have more lined up. I'll have to see if I can find some Carofiglio.

I started reading Last Rituals in Icelandic, but gave up after 2 chapters as I found the style annoying. Bernard Scudder translated the book and knowing his work, he will have smoothed the text and made it more appealing in English. According to some of my friends who have read Yrsa's books, she writes good plot, so I may give her a second chance.

There are several Icelandic crime novels being published for the Christmas trade this year that I am looking forward to read, including a new one by Arnaldur.
maxine said…
I certainly appreciated Bernard Scudder's translation of Yrsa - what a sad loss. The last Arnaldur to be translated was Arctic Chill, which was collaboratively translated, apparently seamlessly, as poor B.S. must have died with it incomplete. I hope his successor does as good a job with the next (which I am very much looking forward to, unless they decide to go backwards as there are two early ones as-yet untranslated).

One reason I liked Yrsa was the witty relationship between the two lawyers - and also the domestic life aspects- I love that kind of dovetailing (eg Liza Marklund, Helene Tursten). I thought the mystery itself was too convoluted, but I didn't mind as there were plenty of good aspects, for me, as a reader.

Glad you like Camilleri. If you find Carofiglio, I would go for his first two or three, the series books- he then wrote a stand-alone which I have got but not yet read. Apparently it is not as good. (Euro Crime will have the list in order - www.eurocrime.co.uk).
All the best
Maxine.
Bibliophile said…
Thanks for the information, Maxine.

I doubt the first of the Erlendur books will be translated into English - it's speculative fiction that doesn't fit in with the realism of the other books.

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