Mysteries of Italy…and the mystery of what to read next when you’ve just finished a terrific book

April 30, 2009 at 12:53 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

face I love the unforced way in which Donna Leon‘s prose transforms itself into poetry:

“Brunetti had not been to the industrial area for years, though the plumes from its smokestacks formed an eternal backdrop for anyone arriving in the city by boat, and the highest plumes of smoke could sometimes be seen from Brunetti’s terrace. He was always struck by their whiteness, especially at night, when the smoke swirled so beautifully against the velvet sky. It looked so harmless, so pure, and never failed to make Brunetti think of snow, first communion dresses, brides. Bones.

The “Face” of the title belongs to Franca Marinello, wife of a prominent industrialist. Franca could almost have been beautiful, but her visage is marred by a not very successful surgery, which everyone assumes was done for cosmetic reasons. The process has left her oddly  disfigured and caused her to be known locally as La Superliftata. But why would a  woman in her thirties need to undergo such a procedure to begin with? This question and its attendant mysteries are at the heart of this provocative novel.

As ever, it is a pleasure to spend time in the company of Commissario Guido Brunetti, especially when he is at home. His wife Paola is a professor of English literature, but her academic obligations rarely interfere with her ability to throw fabulous meals together at a moment’s notice. The kids, Chiara and Raffi, are a delight. (I especially enjoy watching Chiara as she becomes more and more the uncompromising idealist, very much in the mode of her mother.)

Venice itself, with all its  charms and flaws, is a crucial component of this series. Donna Leon does not hesitate to criticize  the corruption, incompetence, and just plain indifference that she sees around her. She is equally adept at extolling the beauty and grace of her adopted home.  At one point, a rare snowfall has Brunetti almost giddy with delight:

“Patches of the domes poked through the snow, which Brunetti could see was  beginning to melt in the morning sun. Saints popped up from everywhere, a lion flew by, boats hooted at one another, and Brunetti closed his eyes from the joy of it.

Guido Brunetti is at once a deeply cultured and wholly unpretentious man. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, but the Commissario makes it look easy.

In a very gracious comment on my About page, Kathy Durkin states:

‘I just read Donna Leon’s latest, “About Face,” which was great. I almost have to join a 12-step program when I finish her books as it’s like finishing a chocolate cake and then saying, “What now”?

Kathy has asked a  very good question. Let’s see if I can provide as good an answer.

If you are looking for vividly drawn characters, intriguing setting, trenchant social criticism, excellent writing, or any combination of the aforementioned, then you’ll probably enjoy these:

birthday suspect


coffin fat-man

graving stone


( Click here for reviews of mystery fiction on this blog.)


Perhaps you are looking for a novel specifically set in Italy…

In the past, I have enjoyed crime fiction by both Magdalen Nabb and Michael Dibdin. (Oddly, and sadly, both of these writers died in 2007 at age 60.) Nabb’s novels are set in Florence, where the author lived for many years. This one is my favorite:  bitter

As for Dibdin, I have just begun re-reading this one:tutti Cosi was the first book I read in the Aurelio Zen series. I absolutely loved it, and I’m reading it again now because it is set in Naples, where I will be going, for the first time, next week.

Finally, there is a series set in the fictional town of Vigata, in  Sicily, that has been gaining steadily in popularity since it first appeared in this country in 2002. I refer to the Salvo Montalbano novels by Andrea Camilleri. Now, here’s the chance for certain members of the Usual Suspects discussion group to point there fingers at me and say, while laughing triumphantly: “We told you so!” Well, yes, you did. You kept singing the praises of this series and I kept letting myself be put off by such quirks as a healthy dose of profanity on page one. In addition, the books seemed like Mystery Lite – breezy and superficial. True, the latest, which I just finnished, started off that way. But I was soon hooked by the wonderful descriptions of Sicily, the compelling plot, and – oh, yes, the novel is very funny. The police station interplay between Montalbano and his fellow cops alone is worth the price of admission!   august I can tell I’ve genuinely liked a book when, by the time I finish reading it, it’s bristling with post-it flags. Well, to my surprise, it happened with August Heat.

One of the great pluses of the Salvo Montalbano novels is Salvo himself. (Yes..I can see that now!) He is probably the first – only? – police detective in crime fiction to strip down to his underwear in his office. Granted, he’s desperate to escape the heat – but still! Anyway, by the time he decided to entertain himself by singing an aria from Cavalleria Rusticana, this rustic product of Southern Italy had pretty well won me over.

Another excellent attribute of Montalbano’s is that he’s a reader: “He sat outside until eleven o’clock, reading a good detective novel by two Swedish authors who were husband and wife, in which there wasn’t a page without a ferocious and justified attack on social democracy and the government.”  He is, of course, reading a mystery by Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall and thereby showing a  superb taste in crime fiction! And like the Swedish duo,  Camilleri/Montalbano can be very cynical when it comes to business  as usual in Sicily:

“Montalbano felt momentarily demoralized. How could it be that things never changed? Mutatis mutandis, one always ended up caught in a dangerous web of relations, collusions between the Mafia and politicians, the Mafia and entrepreneurs, politicians and banks, money-launderers and loan sharks.

In Vigata, treacherous actions coexist uneasily with an unabashed love of pleasure and leisure – what the ancients called otium.

The plot of August Heat centers around corruption in the building trades in general and the killing of a comely young  girl in particular.  The victim’s surviving sister,  Adriana,  is also beautiful – beautiful, and well nigh irresistible…

Camilleri’s novels, unlike those of  Nabb, Dibdin, and Donna Leon, are written in Italian. Stephen Sartorelli’s translation reads quite smoothly; nonetheless, there are occasionally some jarring elements, as when he tries for an English equivalent of colloquial Italian speech. A glossary in the back of the book  was much appreciated.


Here’s a recent release that will be of interest to the many fans of Donna Leon’s fiction:


For more information on mysteries set in Italy, go to


  1. Kerrie said,

    You might be interested in my recent blog post Roberta

    • Roberta Rood said,

      I am interested, Kerrie. Great post – Thanks!

  2. Pauline Cohen said,


    Now you might want to look at the Montalbano videos I have been saving for you! They’re a wonderful take on the books.


  3. “O God, that one might read the book of fate…” - The Birthday Present by Barbara Vine « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] the post just prior to this one, I noted the homage paid by author Andrea Camilleri to the Swedish (husband and wife) crime writing […]

  4. An interlude, in which I treat of (book-related) matters close to home « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] About Face by Donna Leon […]

  5. One book – just one! « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] by P.D. James *Hit Parade and Hit and Run by Lawrence Block Bleeding Heart Square by Andrew Taylor About Face by Donna Leon The Accomplice by Elizabeth […]

  6. Best books of 2009: my own favorites « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Nights by Ann Cleeves A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny Bleeding Heart Square by Andrew Taylor About Face by Donna Leon August Heat by Andrea Camilleri The Price of Malice by Archer Mayor […]

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