It was my manager who lent me Death at La Fenice, the first in Donna Leon’s Venetian detective series. By that time, I’d been to Venice, and I recognised not only the places mentioned in the book but also the accuracy of Leon’s portrayal of Italy. Finally, here was a series that showed the Italy I knew – not some sort of historical paradise populated by quaint and charming locals, but a country struggling with questions of unemployment, immigration, and how to bring its traditional values into the modern world. .
Leon has lived for a number of years in Venice, and it shows. It’s not just the casual use of Italian words here and there in the text, but a true understanding of the Venetian character and the subcurrents in an outwardly tranquil city. In her latest work, A Question of Belief, she paints a vivid picture of the sticky August weather and its effects on the population. Like everyone else, Commissario Brunetti is in the process of escaping the city for Summer when he is called back by a murder. The victim is a clerk at the courthouse, an honest man who seems to have been caught up in some shady dealings; but was that the reason he was killed or was it something more personal? At the request of a colleague, Brunetti is also pursuing a scam artist parading as a mystic.
While I enjoyed A Question of Belief, I wouldn’t count it as one of the superior books in the series. Leon’s characterisations and details of the Venetian setting are as always superb, but the pace is occasionally uneven and the plot and subplot sit somewhat awkwardly together. The title hints at an ethical dilemma for Brunetti but there is little in the book itself to make him really reflect, and this is perhaps why it lacks the punch of some of the other titles. Leon has done a wonderful job maintaining the quality of the series up until this point (this is the 19th title) but needs to ensure that the books don’t become wholly about Brunetti as a character and lose their narrative drive.
Despite those minor flaws, I’d still recommend this book. In fact, I’ve now got my mum hooked on the Brunetti series, although she’s not usually a crime reader. I believe that people pick up the books because of the romance of the setting (who doesn’t love Venice?) but continue to read them because simply, Donna Leon is a damn good writer. While it’s one of the weaker books in the series, A Question of Belief is still a pleasure and a great read.