Back in 1992's "Death at La Fenice," the first of Donna Leon's murder mystery novels set in Venice, her main character, police commissario Guido Brunetti reflected on the odd nature of crime in the city admirers call La Serenissima: the narrow calles could lead to dead ends, the famous bridges could lead nowhere, and the canals not only transect but circumscribe the whole compact little archipelago of the city. There's no automobile traffic, so residents tend to recognize fellow passersby on the streets and vaporettos far more often than in larger and more mobile cities. As Brunetti observed a quarter of a century ago, although committing a crime in Venice might be just as easy as committing one in London or Paris, getting away from the scene of the crime could be much trickier.
In other words, it's not at first glance a promising setting for a long-running murder series, which makes all the more remarkable Donna Leon's accomplishment in keeping this series so fresh and interesting. Her latest book, The Waters of Eternal Youth, the 25th Brunetti mystery, is every bit as smart and intriguing as the first book was a quarter-century ago.
Despite the book's title, however, time has passed. Brunetti and his lovely, aristocratic wife Paola are older, and their children, Raffi and Chiara, are now old enough to be perceptively sarcastic at the dinner table. In fact, his daughter Chiara surprises him early on in this latest book by asking a series of pointed questions about the legality of street-begging in Venice; she and her friends have been approached recently by an African immigrant aggressively asking for handouts, and Chiara quizzes her father about whether or not the man is breaking any laws in the eyes of the Questura, the city's police force.
At the Questura station, Brunetti begins to learn about this new influx of street beggars. Like all Venetians, he'd become accustomed to the Senegalese immigrants called the vu cumpra, but as his colleague Vianello explains, these newcomers are different. “They don't come from Senegal, so the vu cumpra want no part of them. They don't seem to work, don't speak much Italian, and they have a very insistent way of asking for money,” Vianello tells him.
Immigration is just one of the hot-button 21st-century woes Leon works into this latest book (another subplot deals with possible email and phone surveillance), but like almost all of the books in this series, "The Waters of Eternal Youth" also looks to the past. Through his wife and his mother-in-law, Brunetti has encountered the Countess Landi-Continui, who's trying to raise funds to preserve apartments where ordinary Venetians can live and raise their families in the increasingly gentrifying city. But the Countess also has a private reason for approaching Brunetti: fifteen years ago, her granddaughter Manuela fell into a canal and suffered brain damage before she could be rescued. Even after all this time, the Countess is still convinced foul play was involved, and she begs Brunetti to look into it.
It's a very canny blending of past and present, and Leon skillfully underscores it with a greater tone of nostalgia than in previous books. When Brunetti and Paola, still happily in love after all these years, are making their way home one evening, Brunetti reflects on “how Venice had been when they were children, when few people locked their doors: certainly his family never had.” And of his own children he thinks, “How casually different they were from his own generation.… They had so little to believe in, so little to hope for.”
And yet not all is melancholy, far from it; Donna Leon excels both in fast-paced scenes rich with dialogue and also in gem-like little throwaway scenes, like one here in which Paola holds Brunetti steady as he leans out their kitchen window in a rainstorm in order to unclog a roof-gutter; he tells her he couldn't have slipped out the window because all her excellent cooking has thickened his midsection, and the reader can't help but smile at the happy simplicity of the moment.
“You Venetians have the advantage of living with beauty around you everywhere,” a character observes at one point in the book, and these novels make a regular touchstone of that beauty – it's little wonder this series is so popular with tourists that it's inspired its own guided tours of the city. But Leon takes care to give readers the seedier side of Venetian life as well, the side of the city tourists never see but that the vu cumpra know well. A dozen aspects of contemporary Venice are captured in "The Waters of Eternal Youth," from city corruption to art restoration to the uphill battle to keep the city affordable for actual Venetians (the Countess at one point scathingly refers to the city as a “stage set that's been created for tourists”). And although this book, like the last few, can feel a bit unfocused as a result, its many moving pieces still sparkle.