Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Donna Leon's About Face

Today begins another criminally fun journey, as the Alphabet in Crime Fiction community meme makes its first stop on our trip through the alphabet. Thanks so much to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for serving as our guide. Our first stop is the letter "A" and I've chosen Donna Leon's About Face, published in 2009, as my contribution for this week.

As the novel begins, Commissario Guido Brunetti and his wife Paola have been invited to dinner at the home of Paola's parents, Conte Orazio Falier and his wife Donatella. Also attending the dinner are Maurizio Cataldo and his wife Franca Marinello. As Brunetti soon learns, the Faliers have orchestrated this dinner for a purpose. Cataldo wants Conte Falier to invest in his business, and the Conte isn't sure whether to do so. He wants to know if Brunetti can shed any light on whether Cataldo and his business are legitimate. In the meantime, Brunetti has found Franca Marinello to be an interesting person in her own right. She shares his interest in Virgil and Cicero, so they have much to talk about. Brunetti is also struck by her physical appearance, especially her face, which

"…expressed pleasant, permanent anticipation, fixed there immutably by the attentions of a surgeon

When he learns what his father-in-law's real reasons for the dinner are, Brunetti agrees to find out what he can about Cataldo and decides to ask his boss' assistant Signorina Elettra to take a discreet look at Cataldo's background and finances. He no sooner goes to her office with his request than he's pulled into another case.
Maggior Fillippo Guarino of the Carabinieri wants Brunetti's help in a case he's investigating. Stefano Ranzato, owner of a trucking company, has been killed, and Guarino suspects it may be murder, and that the murder may be related to the illegal transportation of toxic materials. Neither man trusts the other at first, but eventually, they find a mutual acquaintance who vouches for each man's honesty and they agree to work together.

Brunetti, Guarino and Commissario Claudia Griffoni work with Ispettore Vianello to try to track down Ranzato's murderer. They also look into Guarino's allegations of illegal toxic waste transportation and dumping. Then there's another murder. Now, Brunetti's even more determined to find out who's behind the killings and the illegal treatment of the toxic waste. It turns out that the key to it all is Franca Marinello. In the end, all of the threads of these cases are tied together and we learn the truth about Franca and her background.

There are several themes that run through this story. One of them is that appearances are deceiving. That's true of Franca Marinello in the literal sense, and it turns out to be true of her in the figurative sense, too. In another example, at the beginning of their relationship, Brunetti and Guarino distrust each other and each has made assumptions about the other. Guarino's heard good things about Brunetti but he assumes that Brunetti may be just another corrupt detective. For his part, Brunetti has no great love for the
Carabinieri, and he's prepared to dislike Guarino right away because he's a maggior. Neither man's right, though, and they develop a respect and even liking for each other.

Also running throughout this novel is the "inside look" at the way things get done in Venice. Very little business gets done through "official channels." Much depends on whom one knows. For instance, instead of making an official inquiry about Maurizio Cataldo, even though his social position would probably get him answers, Conte Falier makes a call to his son-in-law. He knows he'll get quicker, easier and more accurate answers that way. Brunetti doesn't use "official channels," either. He and Guarini call a mutual acquaintance to vouch for each other instead of officially requesting information on each other's backgrounds. Signorina Elettra finds out quite a bit of information about Maurizio Cataldo and his wife because her father knows Cataldo. There are many other examples, too, of going outside "official channels" to get things done. It's easier, quicker, cheaper, and more accurate to do things that way.

As with many of Leon's novels, there's also the theme of uncovering corruption and sleazy dealings in this story. It turns out that all of the cases in the story are related in one way or another to incompetence, corruption and "looking the other way." And yet, although this part's just my opinion, Leon doesn't bludgeon the reader with too much preaching. The messages about toxic waste, corruption and shady business are clearly there, but don't take away from the mystery itself.

One of the most appealing things about this novel is the set of "regular" characters in it. Although this is the eighteenth in Leon's series featuring Brunetti, the reader doesn't have to have read the earlier novels in order to appreciate these characters (although personally, I recommend reading the novels in order). For instance, there's Brunetti's wife Paola. Attractive, patrician, educated, she's a force to be reckoned with and it's obvious that Brunetti loves and respects her. She serves as much as anything else as his conscience, and he listens to what she says. And then there's Signorina Elettra, assistant to Brunetti's supervisor Vice-Questore Patta. She's intelligent and capable, a computer whiz and "plugged in" to all of the unofficial channels for getting information. For instance, we learn in this novel that she's gotten the company that has the local garbage-pickup contract to adjust its pickup schedules because she wants the Questura to recycle. She accomplishes this by reminding the company president of how inconvenient it would be for him and his company if the authorities looked into his financial records. There's also, of course, Ispettore Vianello, one of the few colleagues Brunetti trusts. Vianello is very concerned about the environment, so when he finds out about the illegal toxic waste disposal, he's only too eager to find out who's responsible.

And then there's Brunetti himself. He has a solid sense of justice and he loves his city, so he wants to the right thing, and one respects and likes him for that. Still, he's not naïve and he's well aware of how things really work in Venice. He's also far from perfect. One likes him for that, too.

Also appealing is the sense of humour that comes through in several places in the novel. For instance, as Brunetti and his wife arrive for the dinner party at the beginning of the novel, he makes a somewhat sarcastic joke about her parents' formal way of entertaining:

"Paola stopped in her tracks and turned to him, silent. She gave him a variation on the Look, her only recourse in his moments of verbal excess.

'Si, tesoro?' he asked in his sweetest voice.
'Let's stand here for a few moments, Guido, while you use up all of your humorous remarks about my parents' place in society, and when you've calmed down, we'll go upstairs and join the other guests, and you will behave like a reasonably civilized person at dinner. How does that sound to you?'
Brunetti nodded. 'I like it, especially the part about "reasonably civilized".'

Her smile was radiant, 'I thought you would, dear."

Finally, there's the city of Venice itself. Brunetti is proud of his city, and descriptions of the various parts of the city are woven throughout the story:

"They woke to snow…The bell tower of San Polo was covered, and beyond it, that of the Frari. He
[Brunetti] went down the hall to Paola's study, and from there he could see the bell tower of San Marco, its golden angel glistening in the reflected light. From some distant place, he heard the tolling of a bell, but the reverberation was transformed by the snow covering everything, and he had no idea which church it was or from what direction it was coming."

The city of Venice is a strong presence all through the novel.

If you aren't acquainted with Leon's Commissario Brunetti series, I recommend it. If you are, but haven't read this novel, About Face is a solid entry in the series.


  1. Very thorough and thoroughly enjoyable review! A great start to our alphabet journey! Here's mine, if you'd like to take a peek:

  2. Bev - Thanks for the kind words :-). And thank you for highlighting And Then There Were None. It's such a fabulous book, isn't it? Folks, do check out Bev's terrific contribution to the meme.

  3. I have only read her first book. But remedy that.

  4. Patti - I think you'll like the series. By and large it's well-written, and Guido Brunetti and his family are likeable interesting people. They have faults, of course, but they're good people. We care about them.

  5. I haven't read this yet - sounds like it's well worth my time - thanks for the tip :)

  6. Jemi - I think you'll enjoy it. Of course, I admit to being biased, but still, I think it's a good 'un.

  7. What a fascinating story! I love your reviews. I need to pick your brain on how you read and remember. I can't believe how much information you gleam from a story.

  8. Clarissa - *Deep blush* Why, thank you :-). But really, there's no magic about it. When your brain doesn't have much in it to begin with, there's lots of room to spare to remember novels... ;-).

  9. Wow, very detailed review. It seems to be an interesting story, I have to admit I have a crush to Italian crime novels thanks to Mario Puzo but of course it's unfair to judge the whole Italian crime novels based on one author (just as unfair as judging Swedish crime novel based on Stieg Larsson's only).
    I'll see if I could get my hand on this book, thanks for introducing it to me ^^

  10. Lynossa,
    I know exactly what you mean by judging a whole country's crime fiction on one author. You gave such a good example with Stieg Larsson, and people do that all the time to different countries' crime fiction. I think you'll enjoy this series; of course, I am biased, so do keep that in mind. If you want to sample other Italian crime fiction, you may want to take a sip of Andrea Camilleri and of Tonino Benaquista.

  11. Thanks for the wonderful review, Margot! I am a big fan of Guido Brunetti, but haven't read this one yet. One thing that I enjoy reading about in this series is the relationship between Brunetti and Paola. They are a great couple - very open- and great parents too. I love Leon's descriptions of Venice too, and you provide and excellent example. I will certainly check this one out!

  12. Book Mole - Why, thank you :-). That's awfully kind. I absolutely love the relationship between the Brunettis, too. They are a strong couple, but they're very real, too (i.e. not perfect). And you're right; they're good parents and you can tell they truly care about their children. If you're a fan of the series, I think you're really going to like this one.

  13. Wonderful review and a great start to the Alphabet in Crime Fiction series. I haven't read this book but I'm adding it to my wish list. Looking forward to your post in this series.

    Thoughts in Progress

  14. Fabulous, I look forward to the rest of the alphabet!

  15. Mason - Why, thank you :-). This really is a fine series, and I do recommend it. And I'm looking forward to learning about some new books and authors in this series, too.

    Cat - Awww...thanks! Much appreciated!

  16. I love this series and am slowly working my way through my local library's collection. The characters are wonderful (of course) and the plots are great, but oh....Venice!

  17. Elspeth - I'm so glad you like this series. I agree with you about the characters; whenever I read a new entry in the series I feel as though I'm catching up with friends. And the setting? Um, it's Venice - 'nuff said.

  18. Thank you for reminding me about Donna Leon. I read a few of her books a long time ago and I did like them. You make this one wonderful, and I am definitely going to double check what the next book in the series is for me and track down a copy. Thank you!

  19. Fleur - I'm glad you liked what you read of Donna Leon. I think she's got a lot of talent, and I do like the way she's developed her characters as time's gone by. I hope you'll enjoy this one.