Blood From a Stone by Donna Leon

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Blood From a Stone by Donna Leon

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: The 14th novel in the Commissario Brunetti series looks at illegal immigration and its effect on Venice. It's well-plotted with good characterisation but probably not one that you would read again. Borrow it and enjoy it.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: March 2006
Publisher: Arrow
ISBN: 0099474182

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It's late December and Venetians are milling around the Christmas Market in Campo Santo Stefano. The vu cumprà - illegal immigrants - are there selling counterfeit bags from sheets on the ground, when two men enter the square and one of the immigrants is shot five times. The only witnesses are some American tourists. It has all the hallmarks of a professional hit, but who would go to all that trouble to kill an illegal immigrant who owns nothing, has no influence?

This is the fourteenth novel in Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti series and I think it's the best yet. Called to the scene of the crime, Brunetti starts with as little information as he's ever had on a case. Who is the man? Where does he live? Who are his friends? All the other vu cumprà have disappeared. The American tourists can provide little help. If you're a fan of police-procedural novels (where the police patiently acquire evidence and eliminate suspects) you'll enjoy watching the investigation as it delves into the life of this unknown man, seeing how mercilessly the police will use any contact to gain information.

Brunetti, an upright and caring family man, is shocked at the reaction of his teenage daughter, Chiara, to the death of the immigrant. She resents her father being out late, particularly as "it was only a vu cumprà". Her mother, Paola, wonders if she has raised a monster. Despite being Venetian aristocracy her family have always judged people by their willingness to work and the effort they put into it. A hard-working immigrant would in their eyes be entitled to more respect than a non-working member of the aristocracy who might well be their social equal.

He's less surprised when his boss, Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta, suggests that the case should be dropped, that it might be unwise, even dangerous to pursue it. Brunetti wonders who might have the authority to exert such power over Patta and concludes that the pressure could be governmental, ecclesiastical or criminal - "the great tragedy of his country, Brunetti mused, was how equal they were as contenders." Despite her obvious love of Italy and the city of Venice in particular, Leon has no qualms about exposing the graft and corruption which lies not-too-far beneath the surface.

Leon has a sure touch with her female characters and Paola and Chiara Brunetti are near-perfect. There are exquisite contradictions in Chiara's character - her lack of concern for the murdered man sits uneasily alongside her hatred of cut flowers because of the air miles they accumulate and the fertilisers which leach into the soil. As her mother says of her - the only consistent thing about her is her inconsistency. Paola is a liberal academic, married to a policeman, but the daughter of a Count. She exudes sophistication and poise, but hides her niggling suspicions about her husband's attraction to his boss's secretary, Signorina Elettra.

Brunetti becomes more rounded with each book, not necessarily because the writing improves but because these books really are better read as part of a series. He's not a man of extremes, like Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen, but an honest, upright man (although not above a little emotional blackmail) doing his best to do a good job. That type of character is difficult to develop in a single book. I've not read the books in sequence, though, and I don't think I've lost anything by this. I haven't met any spoilers for earlier novels yet to be read.

Leon paints a wonderful picture of the vu cumprà and how they fit into Venetian life. Paola Brunetti describes the situation perfectly when she talks of the Tamils who sell umbrellas. She says that they're freeze-dried, only coming to life when it rains and they appear to satisfy the need for cheap umbrellas. The vu cumprà live in abject poverty with few rights, but don't generally descend to criminality - other than being in the country illegally. They're hard-working, generally selling their counterfeit handbags at a time when the shops are closed, but nevertheless they are bound to take trade away form those shops which sell them as part of their normal business and pay taxes on their profits. As for the bags they sell, it's not unusual for the factories which make the genuine bags to turn their production to the counterfeit bags overnight. They've become an intrinsic, but illegal part of the economy, a conundrum about which the police can do nothing.

The plot is excellent, although something of a change from other books in the Brunetti series. This isn't a "closed room" mystery where the murderer is going to be one of a limited number of people. It also spreads further afield, with international implications and some fascinating detail about diamond mining in Africa. I read the book in a couple of sittings and found it very satisfying. The style of writing makes for easy reading - it's rather like Ruth Rendell in the best of the Wexford novels.

Something which did please me is that a map is supplied at the beginning of the book. It's quite possible to read and enjoy the book without once referring to it, but having visited Venice I found considerable enjoyment in simply following the investigation around the city.

If this book appeals you might also like to read our review of Michael Dibdin's Dead Lagoon, an Aurelio Zen mystery, also set in Venice. If you're interested in crime novels which deal with the subject of immigration then you might well enjoy Ian Rankin's Fleshmarket Close.

Booklists.jpg Blood From a Stone by Donna Leon is in the Top Ten Books With A Christmas Theme.

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Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti Novels in Chronological Order


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Margaret du Maine said:

I can’t discover what the miniature plaque which Bocchese is examining in chapter 19 is. Studio di Moderno doesn’t come up with anything online and I wondered if anyone can enlighten me?