“We pass through centuries, and we learn nothing.” – A Question of Belief, by Donna Leon

September 9, 2010 at 1:06 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

It’s summer in Venice. Things are slow at the questura. The heat is so intense, even the criminal element is completely enervated. Commissario Guido Brunetti cannot wait to escape from the city with his family. It will be a well earned vacation, far from the tourist crowds, the oppressive temperatures, the evil-smelling waterways. They are going to the mountains! Cool air, gorgeous scenery, time to relax and read…

Such a beautiful dream.

At times, though, the rank of Commissario places a heavy load on Brunetti’s shoulders – never more so than when a murder occurs on his beat, at a most inopportune moment. The beautiful dream must, alas, be deferred.

The victim, Araldo Fontana, is a mild-mannered civil servant, a man in his fifties who works at the law courts and lives with his mother. A seemingly innocuous individual. Who would desire the death of such a person? Meanwhile there’s another problem. It involves the aunt of Brunetti’s second in command and close friend, Isspettore Lorenzo Vianello. It seems that Vianello’s beloved aunt has lately been pulling large amounts of money out of her savings and giving it to some sort of New Age Healer. You’re a policeman, Lorenzo, his cousins plead with him – do something!

Much have I traveled in the realms of  Leon’s Venice…always this storied city comes alive in her writing. Donna Leon has lived in La Serenissima for over twenty years. Her take on her adopted home is striated with ambivalence. On the one hand, she is angered by corruption, incompetence, and indifference; on the other, she’s inspired by beauty, singularity, and history. And of course, there’s the fabulous food, loveingly described – no ambivalence there!

In Guido Brunetti, Donna Leon has created a modern day knight: a man of goodness, decency, and compassion who strives daily with bureaucratic rigidity, self-indulgence, and downright wickedness. One senses that for him, loving his natal city is akin to loving a wayward but irresistibly charming child. Its virtues outweigh its defects. But not by much. And Brunetti’s situation is made all the more trying by his immediate superiors, who are in thrall to Venice’s high and mighty and who, instead of trying to help him, seem at every turn to make his job more difficult.

But still he perseveres. He does have sources of support. At work, he can always rely on the staunch Vianello and the incredibly resourceful, exotic, and faintly mysterious Signorina Elettra. At home, he is truly blessed. His wife Paola, a university professor and ardent Henry James reader, is astute, passionate, and utterly loyal. Children Raffi and Chiara are every parent’s dream: not perfect – but very, very good.

Guido Brunetti is a philosopher-detective, a genuine intellectual whose idea of leisure reading includes Tacitus and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. He has a wonderful mind; I love the way Leon makes us privy to his ruminations:

He had read so widely in the Greek and Roman historians that he found nothing strange at all in the desire to consult the oracles to fin some way to decipher the messages of the gods. Whether it was the liver of a freshly killed chicken or the patterns made in the air by a flock of birds, the signs were there for those who could interpret them: all that was necessary was someone willing to believe the interpretations, and the deal was done. Cumae or Lourdes; Diana of Ephesus or the Virgin of Fatima: the mouth of the statue moved, and the truth came forth.

Brunetti can seem cynical and world weary, not without cause. But he is also respectful of people’s needs, in particular their need to believe in something larger than themselves. He himself has the same need.

In an effort to find out more about Araldo Fontana, Brunetti and Vianello talk to his cousin Giorgio. This interview brings forth one of the saddest, most poignant conversations I have ever encountered in fiction, rendered as it is in Leon’s flawless, pointillist prose. Once again I was put in mind of Virgil’s phrase lacrimae rerum – the tears of thing, tears of the world – tears for the world, perhaps – our fallen but still striving world.

Donna Leon


While reading A Question of Belief, I was reminded of Joan Silber’s short story “Gaspara Stampa” (in Ideas of Heaven) and Andrea di Robilant’s tale of his illustrious forebears, A Venetian Affair.


The soundtrack suggestion for this post is the music of  one of the greatest composers of the Italian Baroque period, Antonio Vivaldi.


  1. Kerrie said,

    Thanks for this review. Like you, I am a great Donna Leon fan. She brings memories of venice flooding back for me.

  2. kathy d. said,

    What a lovely review of the latest Commissario Brunetti book. I, too, love Donna Leon’s books and have read every one of them, save the new cookbook which contains some writing by her.

    I was taken by your descriptions of Signorina Elettra and of Paola Brunette. I would have added about Elettra that she is brilliant, independent and gutsy. (She does go to extreme lengths to get information, pushing every boundary possible, and risking her job, at times–and she knows everything about computers and has the needed technological skills to do anything.)

    I would also add about Paola Brunette something I find astounding: She is an excellent cook. Every day, despite teaching (and reading her favorite author–the second man in their marriage, as Guido sometimes says), dealing with parental duties, she manages to be home and cook the most mouthwatering, fantastic meals I’ve ever read about. They make me want to get on the next plane to Italy or go to the nearest Italian restaurant every day, thus risking my waist line and wallet.
    And she is brilliant, too, and so incisive. (And I love it that she is grumpy in the morning, threatening loss of limb to anyone who awakens her too early.)

    Can’t wait for more of her series and fear I’ll break down and buy the cookbook, even though I don’t cook–not more than scrambled eggs or steamed vegetables.

    Kathy D.

  3. “An ingenious and amusing conceit!” – The Labors of Hercules, by Agatha Christie « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Donna Leon’s latest Guido Brunetti novel, A Question of Belief, Toni Brusca, a friend of Brunetti’s who works for the municipal government, hands him some […]

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