Through a Glass, Darkly

By Donna Leon 

March 27, 2014

Hard to believe this is the 15th book that Donna Leon has written about Commissario Brunetti; Guido and the rest of the cast of characters remain as fresh and interesting as ever.

One of the things I love about Leon's mysteries (besides the fact that they are set in Venice, and she describes the "calles" and the food and the Laguna so that you both feel as though you are there and wish you were there at the same time) is that they are so complex. There is a mystery to be solved at the heart of the story, but there are many other aspects to the main idea for you to relish as well. In this case, a young night watchman is found dead in one of the glass-blowing facilities on the island of Murano. On the face of it, he died of a heart attack, after falling down in front of one of the furnaces and succumbing to the extremely high heat blasting out of it. But surrounding his death are many other factors, including the debate about pollution from the glass-making and disposal of toxic wastes, possible health risks, and of course, political corruption.

Nothing is ever black and white in Leon’s world, which is probably more true to life than we want to see, and is similar in tone to some European authors. But, what makes it so interesting also makes it somewhat dissatisfying. I hate to criticize an author I love (and whose characters I adore) but sometimes, I actually want the good guys to get their guy and the bad guys to be punished! I think that’s why mysteries are such a cosy read, despite the sometimes gory and violent stories. It’s predictable. You feel good at the end because good wins out over bad. But, in Leon’s world, the distinction between good and bad is not easily defined. So, you’re forced to think about the people involved in a different way than usual—more intriguing, more demanding, sometimes more frustrating. Things are not tied up nice and neatly, and you know that the evil and corruption continue.

As I got closer and closer to the end of this book, there were more and more signs that this was going to be one of those endings that left me feeling that something was wanting. But despite the ambiguity surrounding the pollution and corruption issues, it is somewhat hopeful at the end. Whether or not things are concluded satisfactorily, a mystery with the honest but charming Brunetti, his admirable wife Paola, and the legendary Signorina Elettra, cannot help but be worth reading. Leon draws you in to another world, makes you think a little (perhaps with a bit of Dante thrown in for good measure) and sends you on your way again.

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