Beastly Things by Donna Leon (Random House 2012)
Review by Ruth Brassington
Leon’s crime writing discloses Venice in all her glory – and gory – as we wander with Police Commissioner Guido Brunetti through myriad alleys and canals in search of clues. Beastly Things populates this labyrinth with a gentle man, an amoral woman, a wronged woman, an innocent child and corrupt officials against a backdrop of politics, corruption, prejudice, societal changes and family life – a family you feel you’d like to know. Not all the foul deeds take place in Venice; the double entendre title refers to happenings in a slaughterhouse 20 km away where “It’s not a nice place: they kill animals and cut them up”.
So we are led not only through the romantic yet tourist-ridden streets of Venice searching for the killer of a man who “lay still, as still as a piece of meat on a slab”, but through the sights, sounds and smells of the final stages of farm animals’ lives. In a brilliantly painted section, Leon shows the feelings of Brunetti and his colleague as they experience these realities. The violence is not restricted to the slaughterhouse: the story abounds with blackmail, corruption and hidden relationships, cleverly interwoven through award-winning Leon’s skill as a writer. Chit-chat between Brunetti and his team discloses the realities behind crime-solving in Venice, where “greed explained most crimes”. And Brunetti’s wife Paola’s meals will drive readers mad with greedy longing, as she serves tagliatelle with scallops, calamari in umido (slow-cooked calamari in spicy tomato sauce), finoccio al forno (fennel baked in cream) and crostata di fragole (strawberry tart), all washed down with cool white wine.
The big issues of morality, politics, war, history, religion and power are discussed with the Brunetti teenagers over such lunches. As well as cooking magnificent meals, Paola teaches English literature at a university and convinces her family “that literature had far more to tell about how people were and lived” than did, for example, archaeology. The other essential woman in Brunetti’s life, enigmatic clue-gathering secretary Signorina Elettra, contributes computer hacking skills fit to challenge Lisbeth Salander.
One of Leon’s books refers to Venice as this “old whore of a city”, further personalising it as the main player it always is rather than a backdrop to foul deeds and cunning plots. And if we are to learn about real life from literature, everything we’ve ever heard about corruption in Italy is true. It’s no wonder ex-pat American Leon won’t have her books translated into Italian.