A Question of Belief by Donna Leon

Leon, Donna – ‘A Question of Belief’
Paperback: 320 pages (Mar. 2011) Publisher: Arrow
This latest in Donna Leon’s much-admired series about Venetian Comissario Brunetti is well up to scratch. For the first half of the book, Brunetti and his assistant Ispettore Vianello suffer in the summer heat, eat and drink in various local bars, and desperately look forward to their upcoming holidays in the cooler mountains (Brunetti) and the Croatian coast (Vianello). One or two piecemeal matters come to their attention: an old colleague of Brunetti’s is concerned about a particular judge’s court cases that seem from the official documents to be delayed even more than the usual few years that is common in Italy; and Vianello is worried about his aunt, who seems to be giving large sums of money from her family’s business to Signor Gorini, a man who draws up horoscopes. The two men look into the world of online fortune-telling, watching on the office computer as members of the public tell their problems to a Tarot-card reader, at premium phone rates. As usual, any hard information is provided to Brunetti by Signora Elettra, the impossibly perfect office administrator who is ultra-glamorous, able to hack into any computer system, and turns out to know one of the court officials whose signature is on the suspicious documents.
Matters continue in this vein, with Brunetti feeling uneasy about Gorini, especially when he turns out to be cohabiting with a lab assistant at the hospital’s pathology department, who Brunetti knows as a conscientious worker but who has been unhappy recently. There’s nothing that he can put his finger on either concerning Gorini or the court cases, so he concentrates on dealing with the heat and on planning his holiday, which to his pleasure will require packing a sweater.
About half way through this leisurely narrative, Signor Fontana, the clerk of the judge’s court, is found battered to death, as Brunetti is on the train heading north to the mountains. Immediately returning to the capital, Brunetti has to pick up the pieces after his incompetent stand-ins have messed up the crime scene and failed to identify witnesses. Largely thanks to Elettra, Brunetti obtains a lead about the finances of the dead man, and putting this together with some crucial evidence from the post-mortem, homes in on the cause, and hence perpetrator, of the crime. Inevitably, the other plot strand involving the horoscopes also comes to a shocking climax.
This novel is beguiling in its many well-observed details about human nature and daily life in Venice, though I don’t know if its portrayal of police investigations is realistic. Brunetti and his wife Paola are totally cynical about the government and its institutions, taking refuge in reading the ancient Romans (Brunetti) and Henry James (Paola). Brunetti works around his boss, the odious Patta, doing what he can to maintain fair justice. If it weren’t for Elettra, however, he would not get very far, and one hopes that she will be promoted – so that she, in the words of one of the junior policemen, ends up officially running the place instead of doing so behind the scenes. This might be a more interesting course for the author to take than her usual one of wheeling in Elettra to wave her magic wand whenever events stall and a piece of crucial information is needed to start them off again – though it is all done in a very charming way it is a rather overused plot device.

Review first published at Euro Crime, March 2011.

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