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Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Question of Belief by Donna Leon

I've read several novels in Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery series and have enjoyed them all, so when a publicist asked if I'd like a review copy of A Question of Belief, I happily said yes.

The Brunetti series is set in modern day Venice. Against a back drop of decaying infrastructure and hordes of tourists, corrupt politicians and shady business dealings keep good men like Commissario Brunetti busy investigating crime.

Donna Leon is the most graceful, consistent mystery writer I've read. Her style is smooth and substantial. "Unpretentious literary fiction" is a phrase that just popped into my head when thinking of her writing style. Brunetti is such a good man and Venetian crime & politics are so base, yet presented through Leon's masterful storytelling and calm voice, nothing seems simplistic or cheapened by this glaring juxtaposition. And although Leon uses the standard mystery novel conventions of red herrings and a main plot along with a seemingly unconnected subplot--the combination keeps you guessing how/if/when they'll come together--nothing falls flat in this novel. She catches the reader (or at least caught me) by surprise for not paying closer attention to all of the senses capable of registering clues.

The atmosphere she creates is delicious.  The characters are delightful.  I'd forgotten that Brunetti is a devotee of the classics and his wife a literature teacher with a passion for Henry James. Book lovers will relate to and delight in the description of Brunetti noticing how the stack of books his wife, Paola, plans to take on vacation regularly changes as the day of departure gets closer:
Preparing for their holiday, each of the family had begun to pack. Paola created a pile of books on top of their dresser, whose composition changed each day in conformity with the books she thought she wold select for the class in the British Novel she was to teach during the coming term. Brunetti studied the titles every night and thus became party to the ongoing struggle: Vanity Fair lost place to Great Expectations, a substitution Brunetti attributed to weight; The Secret Agent lasted three days but was replaced by Heart of Darkness, though the weight differential seemed minimal to Brunetti; a day later, Barchester Towers took over from Middlemarch, suggesting that the weight rule was back in force. Pride and Prejudice appeared the first evening and stayed the course.
Three nights before their expected departure, curiosity got the better of him, and he asked, "Why is it that all the fat books have disappeared, and A Suitable Boy, which is the fattest, remains?
"Oh, I'm not going to teach that," Paola said, as if surprised by his question. "I've wanted to reread it for years.  It's my reward book.

I also appreciate the physical quality of the books in the series and the great cover art (at least for the American versions).  They are rich in color and tone and often evocative.  My favorite cover is Uniform Justice, which I believe was the first Donna Leon novel that I read when it was release in 2004.  The cover alone made me want to dive into the story, those two black figures leading me in.

A Question of Belief is a good mystery for those who don't like a lot of gore or gratuitous violence (there are two violent scenes, but they're pretty quick and don't go into gruesome detail).  I always feel like I've been on a mini-holiday after reading a Brunetti mystery.

2 comments:

  1. I really enjoy your posts! Question for you -- what happened to the really cute cartoon you used to have on your site of the wild cow? Always enjoy reading your opinions!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, Anonymous! The Wildmoo cartoon will be back. A computer crash wiped out the graphic and I just need to re-work the image of him (or her!).

    ReplyDelete

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