Wednesday, January 30, 2008

FINISHED: Suffer the Little Children

Donna Leon’s latest Commissario Brunetti mystery holds the honor of the first book I have finished reading in 2008. I have been meaning to read Donna Leon for some time now, even after I had abandoned reading Acqua Alta (#5 in series) a few years ago. Suffer the Little Children (#16) was on my alma mater’s 2008 Conversation with Books list, and I decided that this would be the one book I read for this year’s discussion.

The mystery was okay. There’s no murder, which isn't as much a criticism as commentary on uniqueness. Don't most mysteries begin with our sleuth tripping over a dead body? This story begins, however, with carabinieri—a national level of police—breaking into a pediatrician’s home in the middle of the night and taking his illegally adopted 18-month-old son. Brunetti is called in to investigate because the pediatrician was assaulted. Another plot line revolves around a moneymaking scam between pharmacists and doctors and is concluded with a hand-from-the-grave ending.

In between the plot lines, you get the real hook—Leon's compelling sleuth and a setting (Venice) that serves as a character. Commissario Guido Brunetti is a committed husband and proud father, which may be a characteristic that drives him to solve the case that involves child welfare. He's widely respected on the police force and is diplomatic when dealing with the carabinieri. He possesses a keen intellect and a respect for aesthetics (art, wine, books, food, music). He begins his day with espresso and a pastry, because that's a civilized thing to do.

One of my favorite scenes in the book has Brunetti faced with a civil-servant's union strike that would keep him from going to work, since he is, after all, a civil servant. With plans to spend the day reading, if he doesn't have to work, he stops at the bookstore and,

Because he made it a rule never to leave a bookstore without buying something, he settled for a long out-of-print translation of the Marquis de Custine’s 1839 travels in Russia, printed in Torino in 1977: Lettere dalla Russia. The period was closer to the present than ordinarily would have interested him, but it was the only book that appealed, and he was in a hurry, strike or not.

Descriptions of Venice make you want to jump on the next plane there. The details surrounding the meals Brunetti eats with his wife and family will make you salivate. And, it's hard not to get caught up in the details of Italian life—culture and society, manners and mores [sic], and politics.

I can’t wait to return to Acqua Alta—I read 64 pages the first time around, on a bus ride across Iowa (more on that later). All in good time, though. On the recommendation of the Conversation panel, I am going to start the series at the beginning, Death at La Fenice.

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