Suffer the Little Children by Donna Leon, in which we allow a brief, yet we trust, illuminating, digression on the subject of Beowulf.

July 22, 2007 at 3:11 pm (Mystery fiction)

suffer-children.jpg donna-leon.jpg Donna Leon has outdone herself with this terrific new novel.

Is there another crime fiction protagonist like Guido Brunetti? Leon has managed to create a policeman as close to the ideal as possible: a good, decent, humane individual who is exquisitely, almost painfully, responsive to the better angels of his nature. Fortunately for the good citizens of Venice – and most of them are good – those angels are clamorous as well as numerous. They do not rest until Brunetti has done his utmost to right the wrongs he sees around him. And yet there is nothing moralistic or smug about the man – quite the opposite. He lives the good life and knows it: married to, and still very much in love with, the outspoken and fiercely loyal Paola, father of two intelligent, affectionate and highly motivated teenagers – he is showered with blessings and knows it. It is what gives him the strength to deal with a multiplicity of evils.

I often find Leon’s books provocative, but this one, especially so. Here, for instance, Brunetti muses on the subject of why he loves to read the writers of antiquity: ” One of the things Brunetti had secretly admired about the ancients…was the apparent ease with which they made ethical decisions. Right and wrong; black and white.” He then adds, ruefully, “Ah, what easy times they seemed.” I wonder what the basis is for this casually tossed off observation? I have not read widely in this area For that matter, what area are we talking about, exactly? I am currently reading Beowulf, a work which is undoubtedly wide of the mark in this context. Still, one encounters the same paradigm Brunetti refers to: the Good Guys are very good – brave, fearless, generous, loyal, stalwart – and the Bad Guys – Grendel and his mother, for instance – and who even knew that Grendel had a mother?! – are very bad indeed. Beowulf hunts down and kills Grendel, then slays his avenging, rampaging “hell-dam” as well – and under water, to boot! I’ve put off reading this famous epic all my life because it always sounded so cartoonish to me. But it turns out to be mesmerizing, largely because of the language. I particularly love the use of poetic compounds, also called “kennings.” For instance, when asked by the watchman why he and the Geats have come to the land of the “Spear-Danes,” Beowulf proceeds to “unlock his word-hoard.” (I am reading the Seamus Haney translation.)


Well, I’m way off topic now (or am I?), but I cannot recommend Suffer the Little Children highly enough. It is full to the brim with Leon’s characteristic wit and acerbic commentary on the foibles of mankind. But she always makes a clear distinction between people who stumble as best they can along life’s road and those who are deliberately evil – sometimes camouflaging their malicious intentions with noble-sounding idealism. These are the ones we need to fear. I would also say that in this novel, children suffer to some extent, mostly through deprivation, but the adults who are desperate to love and protect them suffer even more.

donna-leon2.jpg Donna Leon doing what the Venetians do best: eating great food and drinking delicious wine.

Oh – and now you’ll have to excuse me now; I must seek out a copy of the Russian Journals of the Marquis de Custine. (Thanks for the recommendation, Guido!) rus166.jpg


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