Gotham Diary:
The Brunetti Gang
1 August July 2012

Reading The Anonymous Venetian, the third novel in Donna Leon’s series of Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries, was a great treat. We didn’t know about Donna Leon way back in 1994, when it appeared, but I think that we were about to find out, because we read the fifth novel, Acqua Alta, when it was new. One of Kathleen’s clients made the recommendation, and I recall that at that time the books were not easy to find in this country. If I’ve read the first book in the series, Death at La Fenice, I’ve largely forgotten it, which is good, because I’m thinking of reading all twenty books in order, perhaps this fall, perhaps next year.

Leon is not the first mystery writer to populate a multi-book series with an appealing supporting cast (although I wish I could think of someone besides P D James who has done it), but the recurring characters are the principal attraction for me. I look forward to spending time with Brunetti’s family — his vivid, brilliant wife, Paola, a professor of English literature at the university, and a worshiper at the flame of The Master; his son, Raffi, and his daughter, Chiara; and, very occasionally, Paola’s aristocratic parents. When at home, these people eat very well, but they also chatter and argue and sometimes even sulk. Then there is Signorina Elettra Zorzi, introduced in The Anonymous Venetian (I didn’t know that). What a woman of mystery! (Why has she taken a huge pay cut to work for the police?) And what a deadpan comic! (“The fact that his appointment is with his lawyer is one I do not feel myself at liberty to reveal.”) A few of the books have disappointed me not because the mysteries were so-so but because Signorina Elettra hardly appeared in them. Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta is not someone you would want to know, but you probably do know someone just like him, and can marvel at Brunetti’s mastery at manipulating his boss’s outsized but tender vanity. It is a truly Sisyphean task, because even when Brunetti gets what he wants, the Vice-Questore is still in command, still the sort of hollow man who seems to monopolize positions of command in our bureaucratic world.

Another figure introduced in The Anonymous Venetian is Officer Scarpa. This seems to be a first appearance, anyway, because Brunetti’s encounter with him is “stony” but not inimical, as encounters are in later books, when Scarpa becomes a kind of Satan in uniform, dedicated to thwarting Brunetti’s investigations (or so it seems to Brunetti). “Scarpa” is close to “Scarpia,” a connection that the author must certainly have wanted her readers to make. If the name “Scarpia” means nothing to you, then no harm done; you won’t be perplexed. But if you know it, and can’t help hearing the monster’s blasphemous outburst during the Te Deum, “Tosca, you make me forget God!” in act one of Puccini’s opera, then a resonance surrounds Scarpa — his lesser capacity signified by letter missing from his name.

That is the sort of thing that makes the Brunetti books so engaging: they’re opened up at every turn by tacit references to a world of culture and thought, to serious questions about faith and meaning. When Brunetti flies from the room of his demented mother (whom he nevertheless visits faithfully), he is reassured by the nun that the old lady is always happy to see him. “And once she senses that it’s you, Dottore, she’s really quite happy.”

This was a lie. Brunetti knew it, and Suor’ Immacolata knew it. Her faith told her it was a sin to lie, and yet she told this lie to Brunetti and his brother each and every week. Later, on her knees, she prayed to be forgiven for a sin she could not help committing and knew she would commit again. In the winter, after she prayed and before she slept, she would open the window of her room and remove from her bed the single blanket she was allowed. But, each week, she told the same lie.

(I would have suggested that Camus change his title, to The Grace of Sisyphus.)