The Girl of His Dreams
By Donna Leon
Atlantic Monthly Press, 276 pp., $24
Commissario Guido Brunetti has come back home. Although Donna Leon rarely takes her police detective protagonist out of his native Venice, in recent books, including last year's "Suffer the Little Children," he's been spending more time pursuing increasingly heartbreaking cases and less in the bosom of his family. In the commissario's latest outing, the 17th in the series, the crime confronting Brunetti is as tragic as any he has faced: A young girl is found floating, dead, in one of the city's picturesque canals. But this time out, author Leon grants her long-suffering detective the mercy of time with his own children, Chiara and Raffi, and his strong-willed wife, Paola.
As fans of this series know, Brunetti loves his family and his familiar comforts. Long lunches, ideally in the family apartment, are chronicled in detail, allowing a vicarious tasting of such midday repasts as fusilli with black olives, mozzarella, and fresh basil, followed by calamari stuffed with carrots, leeks, "perhaps even chopped shrimp." Such breaks make it easier for Brunetti to deal with the harsh realities of his job, made worse when an autopsy reveals the 11-year-old victim was infected with a venereal disease. They also cushion Leon's bleak world view for her readers. On one level, Leon's books function as gastronomic tourism, rich in calorie-free thrills. But in Leon's Venice, beautiful as it is, corruption runs rampant. Although the crime horrifies and disgusts him, Brunetti is warned against investigating the most likely suspect: "You might want to commit professional suicide," says his usually stalwart colleague Vianello, "but I don't." Ultimately, this case is not entirely solved, and the likely murderer manages to bribe his way clear.
Perhaps because of this grim outlook, "The Girl of His Dreams" continues Leon's trend away from straight-ahead mystery. Although this is clearly crime fiction, and Brunetti's combination of interview and intuition remains vital, the murder mystery aspect is almost secondary. Instead, the book deals as much with social issues and the idea of family as with the central crime. The murdered girl is a Gypsy and the investigation calls up both prejudices and uneasy campaigns for political correctness as Venice becomes home to more foreigners than the native born.
But Leon is deft at showing the personal in the political. The book opens with the funeral of Brunetti's mother, and his own thoughts on family and its obligations play into his investigation of the crime as well as his relationships with his brother, his in-laws, and a local priest who has requested a favor.
And just as she allows Brunetti those few breaks - lunches with his family or a caffe corretto at a local bar - so, too, does Leon offer palliatives to her readers. The quality of life in Venice may be sinking faster than the island itself, as local fruit stands now carry only tourist knickknacks and the wait for the vaporetto grows ever longer. But what remains is beautiful, especially in springtime, despite the presence of death and the absence of justice.
It is this contrast, and Leon's subtly lyrical evocation of it, as much as the food or the central mystery that makes her books irresistible. And once again, in "The Girl of His Dreams," all the decay only makes the beauty more poignant. The Brunetti she gives us is a sensitive man, capable of enjoying the progress of spring as the green becomes "more sure of itself," even as he goes to confront grieving parents, a man who lingers on a bridge to study "the way the point of the Salute divided the two canals" in a city he's known all his life. With a sad puzzle to piece together, he - and readers - know that such interludes are brief. Still, he remains, "watching the boats entering and emerging" as life, like the tides, flows on.
Clea Simon is a freelance writer.