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.