One of the reasons I so enjoy Donna Leon‘s books is that the beautifully crafted and enduring character Commissario Guido Brunetti is so refreshingly normal. Not wounded – emotionally or physically – in the way that seems to have become almost de rigueur in police drama. He’s principled and compassionate. Utterly faithful to his wife, Paola. Loves his children. True, no meal however humble can pass without a glass or two or suitably matching wine, and he particularly enjoys a glass of grappa with his dessert. But he doesn’t wake up barely able to crawl to work or unable to remember the events of the previous evening.
Whilst criminals do abound, his lingering adversary is the divisive snobbery and rampant corruption that cripples every level of life in his beloved Venice. Ironically it is the elite social standing of Paola, that allows him to maneuver through the political web that is the city’s Polizia. The opening scene of The Waters of Eternal Youth provides even the newest reader with a colourful snapshot of the power elite that is the real Venice. A formal dinner is being held by the elderly but still forceful Contessa Demetriana Lando-Continui to impress potential donors for her ambitious restoration projects. Brunetti and his wife are there as the “real Venetians” whose presence is as important an ingredient as the ciambella con zucca e uvetta when wooing outsiders.
But the Contessa has more on her mind than just the success of her project. She wants Brunetti to investigate an incident, 15 years earlier, when her grand-daughter had been “damaged” because of the lengthy time she spent in the water after apparently falling into a canal. Although the girl has never talked of it, the Contessa is convinced that it was the result of something more sinister than an accident.
With help from the formidable Signorina Elettra, his boss’s assistant and expert at operating within a notoriously dysfunctional system, he begins to slowly piece together the events that had taken place. Brunetti’s investigations take him, and the reader, through the labyrinthine maze of lanes, canals and passageways that make you feel you’re right there rather than a long-distance observer.
An American, Leon has lived in Venice since 1968 where she has always kept a deliberately low profile. From her insider’s vantage point she reveals a completely different, and much darker, city than the one the visitor sees. In a newspaper interview she said: “Italians tend to be less rigidly moral and law-abiding than do Anglo-Saxons. They also have a profound suspicion of the state and most of its agencies. “Venetians feel affection and loyalty to their city, rather than to the Italian state. Since it is a small population – 60,000 – people tend to know one another, which means they know history and gossip. And there is, as so often in Italy, a political importance or weight to certain events.”
If I have one quibble with The Water’s of Eternal Youth it is that there is not enough description of the glorious local dishes, particularly those served up at Brunetti and Paolo’s family meals. Food porn at its most subtle.
The Waters of Eternal Youth by Donna Leon is published by Penguin Random House. Leon’s books have been translated into 30 languages and spawned a TV series and guide books such as Brunetti’s Venice by Tony Sepeda tours.