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Book Review: Dressed For Death by Donna Leon

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A transvestite whore is dead in Venice. He/she was dressed, made-up and wearing red high heels. Commissario Brunetti of the Venetian police is sent to investigate in this formula mystery/police procedural by Donna Leon that proved a good enough read to demand a review.

It is the earliest of the mystery series set in Venice, Italy revolving around the good investigator, Brunetti that I have read. I say “I have read” because this is number 14 in the series. Ms. Leon is prolific. More to the point is that she is keeping the characters fresh and the mysteries interesting.

A group of four of her books came in the coveted CARE package from my father-in-law. His tastes run to weighty biographies and stories of adventurers (Into Thin Air and Endurance). I was, therefore, more tempted to try a formula mystery he had enjoyed. Our tastes are not always alike.

[ADBLOCKHERE]In some previous reviews such as In The Company Of Cheerful Ladies, With No One As Witness, and BlowFly by Patricia Cornwell, I have been interested in the nature of formula mysteries as much as the particular book. I read a book on writing formula mysteries for fun and profit a lot of years ago. It was a guideline for developing characters, a sense of place, and even a plot. Then off you went to develop your writing style in a genre, it was written, which was relatively easy to master and in which you could turn a literary profit. Looking back, I think that I should have given it a try.

From the point of view of the reader, the formula must provide characters deeply enough felt and strongly enough drawn to interest us, entrance or annoy us, burrow into the semi-consciousness of reading for pleasure. They have to be people who stay with you – Sam Spade, Nero Wolfe, Ratso, Sherlock Holmes (no formula writer, that one), Kay Scarpetta (in her better days), crotchety Hercule Poirot and on into future heroes. They have to have the depth of character to become part of us but must not be a Dickensian character developed from childhood over a thousand pages. Formula characters are our friends and neighbors, role models, and poster stars. They are to be liked or loved but not to be known too well.

In a review of With No One As Witness, I described the work as a formula piece and made light of the stock characters. I reported liking it but I realized that I liked it because it filled a need for tranquility and stability. In return, I received a comment to the effect that I was wrong and the book was terrible, the characters one-dimensional and unappealing, the mystery too easily solved and the book ultimately unsatisfying.

I can’t imagine anything in his life after this novel being any more interesting than watching iron rust. His subordinate, Barbara Havers, would be fired from any force worldwide for being a slovenly smart aleck who won’t obey orders. Winston Nkata seems to have mostly his race going for him when it comes to promotion and he has very little romantic ability.

Was the story great, the mystery mysterious? Perhaps not. But I liked Barbara Havers for her “slovenly smart aleck”-ness and refusal to obey orders. I liked the view of London and appreciated the sense of place. These are formula mystery factors that are even above the plot and the “mystery”.

Donna Leon has paid her dues and created comfortable, modern characters, a breathtaking view of Venice, and a seemingly astute one of the politics of Italy and Venice. There are some problems. Our Commissorio Brunetti is a masculine, perceptive, compassionate, Venetian, and just a bit too much 1990s new age sensitive. Every once in a while he steps out of character just enough for us to remember that the author is female. He may take a bit too much notice of the curtains in a room to seem like a real Italian policeman. His kids have just enough character, his wife a bit too much perfection to always believe, but they are charming and make us comfortable. So does Brunetti himself. He also, with the help of his wife’s astute comments, solves mysteries, in this case the murder of the red shoe-clad man murdered in a factory district where the whores congregate.

Plots are seldom really new but getting to know another locale is fun, especially if it is the Venice of our gondola dreams and sodden palacio fears. Ms. Leon (who was born in New Jersey) gives us the charm of Venice and the reality of Italy at the end of the 20th and the start of the 21st centuries.

As the police car sped back over the causeway towards Venice, Brunetti looked out to the right, at the clouds of grey, white, green, yellow smoke billowing up from the forest of smokestacks in Marghere. As far as the eye could see, the pall of smoke enveloped the vast industrial complex, and the rays from the declining sun turned it all into a radiant vision of the next century. Saddened by the thought, he turned away and looked off toward Murano and, beyond it, the distant tower of the basilica of Torcello, where some historians said, the whole idea of Venice had begun more than a thousand years ago, when the people of the coast fled into the marshes to avoid the invading Huns.

In terms of modern Italy, she lets us know of the feeling about Italians that I have had from my small knowledge.

The building was sleek, a tall glass-fronted rectangle which must have seemed, when it was built ten years ago, right on the cutting edge of urban design. But Italy is a country where new ideas in design are never prized for much longer than it takes to put them in effect, by which time the ever-forward-looking have abandoned them and gone off in pursuit of gaudy new banners, like those damned souls in the vestibule of Dante’s Inferno, who circle round for all eternity, seeking a banner they can neither identify nor name.

This, I believe, is a good take on the modern Italian sense of style and design. It is also an awesome sentence with more commas than there are gondolas in the Venetian canals. If I tried such a comma-laden sentence I would have changed one to a semi-colon just to make it all prettier. Then a Blogcritics editor would have attacked with a virtual red marker. Ms. Leon was able to handle it and even make it readable.

The dead transvestite leads into a sufficiently convoluted path of police procedures and detective-thought to entertain. It is not so much a tour of the seamy side of the sex business in Venice as it is a tour of modern notions and misconceptions of the gay world and a voyage into the facts as presented and the different ways they can be ordered and re-ordered.

Here and there the issues of the day – perhaps of the generation – are also brought in to spice up the reality of fictional lives. In this case it is being gay, being a transvestite, living the life of the streets. It might be the nature of the death and it might be part of the mystery. We get a little of the gay bashing question with the following:

It was Mazza’s turn to risk, “Was he very bad? When you found him?” He brought his hands together in front of him, one clutching at the other.
Brunetti nodded.

“Isn’t it enough they want to fuck us?” Canale broke in, ‘Why do they want to kill us, too?”

Thought the question was addressed to powers well beyond those for whom Brunetti worked, he still answered it. “I have no idea.”

A perfect mystery? Hardly. Donna Leon is not Arthur Conan Doyle nor Agatha Christie and this is hardly on the level of Death in Venice. It is, however, easy to enter into the trip to Venice, to the underworld of Italy and into the life of the Commissario and his wife, Paola, and to be accompanied by the trusted sidekick (isn’t there always one?), Vianello.

Join us in Venice. It is an old glove of a book – comfortable, interesting, agreeable, sometimes exciting, and hard to put down.

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About hfdratch

  • Maybe Italian policemen do study curtains. I can remember that one of my first images of Rome – arriving as a naive Australian 24-year-old was all of the men window-shopping for clothes. Men. Windowshopping. They stood there, debating the virtue of this pair of trousers, that jacket, and I stood watching them, astonished.