Death in a Strange Country by Donna Leon

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Death in a Strange Country by Donna Leon

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: An early book in the Commissario Guido Brunetti series explores the corruption endemic in Italian politics and makes for a good read, but not nnecessarily a purchase.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: March 2004
Publisher: Arrow
ISBN: 0099469375

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Commissario Guido Brunetti is present when the body of a young man is pulled out of a Venetian canal. Everyone else seems determined that the death will be classed as robbery with violence, a mugging gone wrong, but Brunetti isn't convinced. He's even less convinced when drugs are found in the flat where the young man, an American serviceman, lived. Then the American doctor who came to identify his body apparently commits suicide and Brunetti is sure that someone is going to a great deal of trouble to cover up the reasons for the first murder and that the 'someone' has a great deal of influence.

Death in a Strange Country was written in 1993 but the issues it covers are still pertinent more than a decade later. Donna Leon has the knack of being able to convey the corruption endemic in Italian politics without being heavy-handed. I felt that this wasn't just an isolated incident, but that it's the way things are. It's there, like the surface on a stagnant pond and some surprising people accept that this is the way that things are done. The problem of the disposal of toxic waste is even more relevant today than in the early nineties, and the book brought home to me just how unscrupulous some people are prepared to be when there is a profit to be made. The horror of what was being done, how innocent people can be caught up in the problem, came across to me very strongly.

This is one of the earlier Donna Leon novels and I've made the mistake of reading them out of order. The novels don't contain any spoilers, so little is lost from that point of view, but the later books have a better pace and the writing is more accomplished. The plot is good but there are occasions when it dragged a little and I found myself skimming whole paragraphs. The ending is unconventional, but nevertheless satisfying. If you enjoy police-procedural novels then you will probably appreciate this book.

Leon is a master of characterisation. My affection for Brunetti grows with each book that I read. He's not as extreme as Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen but still comes across as a positive personality. Of all the fictional detectives he's the one that I feel I know best and can empathise with. Any author requires considerable skill to achieve this and Donna Leon seems to do it effortlessly. She's equally good with the female characters - Brunetti's wife, Paula, is superb. Fortunately this book doesn't feature Signorina Elettra who appears in later books and annoys the hell out of me.

Donna Leon lives in Venice and she paints wonderful word pictures of the city, capturing the way that grandeur sits side by side with sleaze and poverty, the way that the beauty of the buildings is surrounded by the filth of the canals. It's a city that I haven't visited for more than a quarter of a century, but she took me back there. There's a map at the beginning of the book which is good enough to use if you were visiting the city and I referred to it regularly as Brunetti moved about Venice.

The book deals with more than one violent death but these are described after the event and are not unnecessarily detailed. There are no scenes of explicit sexuality. For me the most frightening parts were those which described the effects of toxic waste. I'd regard the book as adult reading without any other restrictions.

When you finish reading any Donna Leon novel it's always worth thinking about the title. There's almost always a double meaning and some of them are very clever. This one is no exception.

If you like this type of book you might also enjoy reading Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen books. Dead Lagoon is set in Venice and would be a good starting point. You might also like to try Andrea Camilleri's The Shape of Water which is the first in the Salvo Montalbano series, set in Sicily.

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Buy Death in a Strange Country by Donna Leon at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Death in a Strange Country by Donna Leon at

Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti Novels in Chronological Order


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