Donna Leon is back on top form in her latest Commissario Brunetti novel set in Venice, THE GIRL OF HIS DREAMS. The main appeal, for me, is the beautiful sense of place and way of life that unfolds in leisurely style. In the first hundred pages of this short book, the only plot event is when Antonin Scallon, a priest and schoolboy friend of Brunetti's brother (but emphatically not of Brunetti himself) asks Brunetti to look into a case of Leonardi Mutti, leader of a cult who, thinks Scallon, is fleecing people of their money. Brunetti's reaction to the request is strongly coloured by the fact that he disliked the priest when they were schoolmates, but he reluctantly interviews an old, retired priest with whom Scallon is living, and persuades his wife Paola, together with Captain Vianello and his wife, to attend a fundraiser hosted by Mutti.
By page 100 the book's easy rhythm has drawn the reader into Brunetti's world as he goes about his daily business. But the routine is rudely interrupted by the awful discovery of a body in the canal: after Brunetti and Vianello retrieve it, in a clammy scene, the corpse horrifically turns out to be that of a girl who seems to be about 12 years old. Further gruesome facts emerge as the body is examined by the pathologist. Brunetti, who has been reading the Greek dramatists, is deeply affected by the discovery: "He could not bring himself, not that night, to read of the death of Astyanax. He closed his eyes, and the greater darkness brought him the memory of the dead child, the feel of the silk threads of her hair around his wrist." Brunetti applies his detective skills to the case, using his knowledge of the city and the currents of its canals to identify the likely site of the death, and discovering that the girl was a gypsy, or as he is told to call her, a Rom, from one of the immigrant communities living in a camp site over the causeway on the industrial wastes of the Italian mainland.
During the ensuing investigation, Brunetti collaborates with the local police and the social services as well as following up his own leads, all subjects for the author to provide her ironic perspectives on the moral values among the richest and the poorest families in society, as well as her wider observations. At home, for example, Brunetti's teenaged daughter comments that at school her teachers tell her that the Mafia is being fought in a war by the police and the government, to which Paola, Brunetti's wife, replies: "Can you name a war that has been going on for sixty years? In Europe? We've had it ever since the real war ended and the Americans brought the Mafia back to help fight the menace….of international Communism. So, instead of having the risk that the Communists might have entered the government after the war, we've got the Mafia, and we'll have them round our necks for ever." Or, when Paola's mother tells Brunetti her husband's views after a trip to Sicily and Calabria: "Since both places belong to the Mafia and the government has no effective control over them, he thinks it's linguistically correct to refer to them as the Occupied Territories."
But THE GIRL OF HIS DREAMS is far from being a political tract. It is a book that shows enormous empathy with the human condition via Brunetti's interviews with various witnesses, suspects and the family of the dead girl, all infused with a kind of accepting disgust at the inevitable differences of life as experienced by the rich and the poor. Brunetti and his colleagues mourn the dead girl and do the right thing by her; and in the process, Brunetti comes to understand Scallon, developing a very different view of him to that which he rather arrogantly held at the outset.