Murder, Mafia, and a mysterious woman

By Clea Simon
April 13, 2009
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Perhaps it is not surprising that in a murder mystery nothing is as it first appears. But that truism has deeper meanings for both the police and the civilians involved in "About Face," Donna Leon's 18th fine and atmospheric Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery.

Focused, as always, more on life in contemporary Venice than on action or even serious crime solving, "About Face," is still somewhat atypical for this series. Leon excels at depicting Brunetti's warm and complex domestic life, and in classic Brunetti style this outing starts with a dinner party. Brunetti's wife, Paola, an academic, brings up Henry James, and Brunetti finds himself captivated by an odd-looking young woman who has apparently had way too much plastic surgery - not because of her looks, but because she can discuss Cicero. Soon after, this book takes on a heavier crime component than has been usual.

A member of the carabinieri - Italy's military police - comes to Brunetti's office, seeking help with a sensitive case. Their jurisdictions are separate, but Brunetti feels a kinship with the plainspoken Maggiori Guarini. So when Guarini tells Brunetti of a murder linked to illegal dumping, and, beyond that, to the northern expansion of the Camorra, the real-life Neapolitan Mafia, Brunetti agrees to look into a possible Venetian angle, and to do it discreetly. After Guarini is found dead in a barren industrial storage area, Brunetti realizes that he may hold the only clues.

In a parallel plotline, Brunetti's father-in-law, the rich and influential Conte Falier, asks for a rare favor: background on the strange, Cicero-quoting beauty's husband. Both investigations point toward shady deals, made in the gray areas of international law; far-reaching trade arrangements that are polluting Venice and its environs physically and spiritually.

As recently as 2007's "Suffer the Little Children," Leon had almost abandoned the charming domestic side of Brunetti's life, leaving behind the wonderful meals and repartee to focus on the social ills that have long made up the meat of her deceptively hard-edged stories.

She remedied that imbalance with last year's "The Girl of His Dreams," softening the tragic tale of a young girl's death and of the hardships faced by the new Europe's illegal immigrants, with parallel stories of Brunetti's loved and idiosyncratic children, Chiara and Raffi.

In "About Face" she ratchets up the tension further, expanding on both the intimate and social complexities that make her books so rich. As a result, the discoveries feel natural, the revelations inevitable. Paola cannot really be jealous of Brunetti's interest in the strangely scarred beauty. But she also cannot help questioning all the gossip about this woman, "la super liftata," who can discuss Ovid's "Metamorphosis" without noting the apparent irony.

Brunetti, meanwhile, may appreciate the opportunity to finally do his father-in-law, the Conte, a favor, but he can't stop wondering about the long-term effects of his global business deals. As the chemical plants of the mainland continue to dump into Venice's fabled lagoon, the many sides of his life come together: "His mind flashed to his children, for it was they and their children who would inherit the contents of those trucks."

But even as he mulls over the impact on society, Brunetti's dogged investigation into Guarini's death places him in danger. In one of Leon's more dramatic two-part climaxes, Brunetti faces death as he begins to learn both the true scope of the Camorra's influence and what others will do to preserve their domestic harmony in the face of a crumbling society.

Clea Simon is a freelance writer and the author of "Cries and Whiskers" (Poisoned Pen Press).

ABOUT FACE: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery
by Donna Leon
Atlantic, 272 pp., $24