Saturday, 14 February 2009

“Death in a Strange Country”, Donna Leon

I came to Donna Leon almost by accident. She's one of those authors of whose existence you're always aware of, more through peripheral vision than actually considering them. The beauty of a public library means that you can experiment, and in that sort of line a month or so ago I ended up with her “Friends in High Places”. As is perhaps obvious from the title of this post, Donna Leon was sufficiently engaging to make me want to start right at the beginning of her series about criminal Venice and her somewhat lachrymose protagonist, Guido Brunetti.

“Death in a Strange Country” is a very Italian crime novel. Written in the early 1990s it captures the manifold complexities of Italian society, running the gamut of political corruption, the divides between left and right, the difficulties of making money in late 20th century Italy, the omnipresent mafia and the lawless South, and the central point, the impact of the American military presence in Italy. All of this enriches the story, with the impact that the traditional crime narrative, with a process generally leading to an arrest or conviction, is much less achievable. Justice, when served, is less a function of due process than emotion, not all loose ends are tied up, yet all of it is couched in the terms of what passes for a police investigation.

The label 'police procedural' is one that I profoundly dislike; it does nothing to erode the impression of crime fiction being synonymous with trash fiction, and as a term it conveys little in the way of excitement. Perhaps depressingly however Leon's books, and “Death in a Strange Country” is as good an example as any of the three I've come across so far, fits so closely with what we should see as a 'police procedural'. Brunetti exists within the context of a tightly defined criminal justice structure, crimes are committed, investigated, and some form of closure is arrived at. It is to Leon's credit that the way she executes plot keeps attention, build affinity, and applies a gritty veneer to Venice, a city most of us will associate with almost theme park levels of packaged tourism. The Venice we see here really is a fading sinking edifice, loved by its inhabitants, still full of tremendous grandeur, but nonetheless a city exposed warts and all. In short, Leon writes police procedurals, but they are very Italian.

One of the aspects that has struck me in reading this series so far is that it has, for me, struggled somewhat with characterisation. Brunetti, the archetypal frustrated diligent cop is a touch too good. Patta, his superior is altogether too bleakly incompetent. Paola, Brunetti's wife is one dimensional, and almost too good. In fact the road to Damascus experience I had while reading “Death in a Strange Country” was that perhaps the most real character, and one easiest to identify with is Brunetti's father-in-law. His wife's father plays a key role in many of the works as serving as a vehicle for the happy coincidence in moving the plot along, but here his persona is scratched more deeply. The father-in-law (and I apologise for not giving him a name, but my cat is very contentedly asleep on my feet, and it seems cruel to shift him to go and dig out the book to check precise details) comes across maybe as the truest Italian, certainly corrupt, largely trying to do the right thing for his family, and struggling with the compromises that his life revolves around. It is in this unexpected richness in character that really adds to the enjoyment of the book.

Thus far Donna Leon's not quite at the level where there's a desperate hunger for the next book, but there's undeniably a richness here that makes me happy that there are many more in the series. Maybe my opinion will change as I read more of them and get a more rounded view of them, but thus far it's all pretty positive.

Finally, an apology for the gap in posting. Generally when I'm busy at work I'll be on the road a lot, which means I get to read a lot, and thus this should be translated into posting. Unusually February so far has entailed a lot of sitting in the office toiling away and the only real travel being done has been a case of sitting in a car through a South London commute. Book reading overall has fallen through the floor recently, so it's a real pleasure to draw a line under this one and, thankfully, get back to expressing some opinion.

1 comment:

  1. Welcome back, nice to read that you are posting again. I enjoyed this review - I think you have put your finger on one of the weaknesses of Leon - Signorina Elettra is my favourite character I think (but only because I'd quite like to be like her!), but like the others you mention, she's quite one-dimensionally "brilliant with all computers and IT, and with twisting Patta round her little finger". The books are quite uneven, some are very good indeed (the last one I read, about the Roma ("gypsy") children, published in the UK last year, was very good, but the previous one disappointing). I read the first half dozen or so avidly, then forgot them for a few years and only began reading them again a couple of years ago when I was asked to review one. Although I prefer Camilleri and Gianrico Carofiglio, I am usually happy when I've spent the time reading a Leon. (All three authors write nice short books!)