About Face, by Donna Leon

 

If you have read any novels by Donna Leon, ABOUT FACE will be no surprise. It's just like the others: a perfect miniature of a book with a social sting in its tail; an elegy for the lost (?) traditional Italian way of life; and, almost by the way, a detective story.

ABOUT FACE features a bit more of Brunetti's extended family than is usual, opening with the Commissario and his paragon of a wife, Paola, attending a dinner at Paola's parents, the very aristocratic and rich Conte and Contessa Falier. Brunetti finds himself sitting next to Franca Marinello, the young second wife of a business associate of the Conte's. Initially repelled by her face, which is ravaged by surgery, Brunetti is soon attracted to his companion by her knowledge and insight about Ovid, Virgil and Cicero. Back at the police station where he works, Brunetti is barely stretched in his constant game of running psychological rings round his vain superior, Patti. As part of this process, Brunetti finds himself interviewing Guarino, a rather mysterious law-enforcement officer from a different region, possibly Naples, who is working on a case in which a driver was killed during an investigation of illegal waste-dumping. Everyone knows about the scandal of the Camorra, in which rubbish is left uncollected in the Naples region while the Mafia, who control the business, take contracts from elsewhere in the country or abroad; there are awful suppositions about how and where the toxic and evil output is removed. Even Brunetti's father-in-law is on the brink of being involved.

Brunetti is a man living in another era – not only does he know nothing about computers, but he doesn't have to. One person at the Questura (police station) knows how to use computers and to hack into any system: Signora Elettra, who usually steps into the plot when any internet or other high-tech activity is required – in this case, to find out what Guarino is really investigating. While this is going on, Brunetti can spend his days ruminating, popping out to bars for coffee or grappa, going home for improbably long lunch hours in which Paola cooks delicacies (even though she is a professor of literature at the university), and so on.

Even though Donna Leon's novels require some suspension of belief, they present a consistent and absorbing world, in which literature and the higher values are respected, and the mundane evils of our world are intruders that are ultimately, if not dealt with, kept at bay. That isn't to say that there is no edge to the books: they always feature an issue of contemporary relevance and scandal. In this novel, there is plenty to be said and felt about the awful national and international waste-disposal business, riddled with corruption. And although the outcome of this aspect of the plot struck me as a bit implausible, particularly the nocturnal adventure of Brunetti and two junior colleagues, the subplot of the casino and the enigmatic Franca, complete with Brunetti's feeble attempts to be a business consultant to his father-in-law, in the process bringing the two men closer after their long association of mutual wariness, are both exciting and moving.

First published at Euro Crime, January 2010. 

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