Beastly Things

Guido Brunetti of the Venetian Commissario di Polizia returns – and we're glad to see him.

Beastly Things By Donna Leon Grove/Atlantic, Inc. 288 pp.

What a pleasure it is to greet Guido Brunetti, when the Venetian Commissario di Polizia returns as he does each spring, pretty much like clockwork for the last 21 years, as trusty as a daffodil – or would be, that is, if the daffodil also consulted the "Meditations of Marcus Aurelius" as if it were the "I Ching." Brunetti is one of a worshipful company of sleuths that includes Grijpstra and de Gier, Martin Beck, Gervase Fen and Wimsey, Cadfael, Poirot, even Spenser – each one a man comfortable in his own skin, complete with quirks, foibles, and all. These are protagonists who don't burden readers with their miseries, as some fictional detectives insist on doing. (Don't we all have plenty of our own?).

In Beastly Things, Brunetti sets out to discover the identity of a murder victim who has been stabbed, mashed, and dumped into one of Venice's ever-handy canals. But, as in many of Leon's stories, the procedural is a stepping stone to bigger problems undermining the magic of Venice: venality and greed, flourishing as ever, and here in addition the horrors of the slaughterhouse. Brunetti's own small band of merry comrades at the station are back in form: the broody Inspector Vianello and the chic Signorina Elettra, who lights up the Vice-Questore's office and conducts computer searches of amorphous legality. And the two from the dark side: the opportunistic obstructionist Vice-Questore and his junkyard dog, Lieutenant Scarpa.

Leon's mood, like Vianello's, is broody, too, and distracted. The dead man's circumstances flutter along, as if attaining critical mass were not an issue; there is a strange dithering over the victim's enlarged neck and chest, known as Madelung's disease, an illness of which you will never, ever hear again. Paola, Brunetti's sharp-as-a-tack wife, introduces a potentially juicy side story – an item about a colleague at her university who is a candidate for stealing rare materials from the library – that is also allowed to gutter out.
What kicks up the dust is Brunetti learning that the victim moonlighted as an inspector at an abattoir. He and Vianello investigate the establishment and are undone by what they witness. This raises the opportunity for Leon to underscore our tangled relationship with meat eating and the kinds of nasty behavior the meat industry has gotten away with since long before Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle." Yet here it is happening in Venice, a place that Leon has always made shimmer even at the lowest tide. If that isn't metaphorical enough, seaweed is snaking its way into the city's most secret waters, an appalling, heartbreaking neglect that bodes ill for the city's future.
Then, into the malaise, come gladdening interventions: Paola with a lunch – tagliatelle with scallops, calamari with peas, crostada di fragile – which, after all, is only civilized and not to be belabored. And Brunetti trying to visualize in his head the location of the water door from where the dead body was dumped, a geography of the mind in the city he loves. Following him through it feels as intimate as if we were looking into his underwear drawer. It is a wonderful thing that taking such a perspective can, through Leon's alchemy, feel positively uplifting.

Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City.

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