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INTRODUCTION

The snaking, unmarked streets of canal-crossed Venice provide the perfect backdrop for intrigue and mystery in Donna Leon's elegant mystery series featuring the affable Commissario Guido Brunetti.

Guido Brunetti is a born and bred middle-class Venetian who investigates murder and high crime among the patrician families of old Venice. From his headquarters at the Questura, Brunetti pieces his cases together with the help of a few clever colleagues: the beautiful secretary and researcher Signorina Elettra, the loyal Vianello, the persistent Pucetti, and the often duplicitous and self-aggrandizing Vice-Questore Patta. But the commissario is not just another heartless, hard-nosed sleuth whose sole goal in life is the pursuit of the criminal. Every night he comes home to his wife and children and must bear the burden of being witness to horrible crimes without allowing his work to affect his family life. His humanity tempers his sleuthing with humility and empathy, allowing him to delve deeper into the minds of his adversaries and uncover clues he might not otherwise be privy to.

INTRODUCTION TO A NOBLE RADIANCE

The snaking, unmarked streets of canal-crossed Venice provide the perfect backdrop for intrigue and mystery in Donna Leon's elegant mystery series featuring the affable Commissario Guido Brunetti.

Guido Brunetti is a born and bred middle-class Venetian who investigates murder and high crime among the patrician families of old Venice. From his headquarters at the Questura, Brunetti pieces his cases together with the help of a few clever colleagues: the beautiful secretary and researcher Signorina Elettra, the loyal Vianello, the persistent Pucetti, and the often duplicitous and self-aggrandizing Vice-Questore Patta. But the commissario is not just another heartless, hard-nosed sleuth whose sole goal in life is the pursuit of the criminal. Every night he comes home to his wife and children and must bear the burden of being witness to horrible crimes without allowing his work to affect his family life. His humanity tempers his sleuthing with humility and empathy, allowing him to delve deeper into the minds of his adversaries and uncover clues he might not otherwise be privy to.

INTRODUCTION TO UNIFORM JUSTICE

In Uniform Justice, Commissario Brunetti arrives at the elite San Martino Military Academy to investigate the suicide of Ernesto Moro, a young, promising cadet who turns out to be the son of a prominent government official. The student's family denies that Ernesto was the kind of boy that would kill himself. The commissario casts a skeptical eye on the original pronouncement of suicide, but the further he tries to delve into the events that led up to the young man's death, the more vague and openly hostile the military students become. Brunetti uncovers what may be a conspiracy to silence a report by Fernando Moro that would have blown the whistle on payola corruption in government spending. He sets out to accomplish the difficult task of proving that Ernesto Moro's death was not suicide, but murder.

A longtime resident of Venice, Leon paints a perfectly rendered portrait of the city's clash of old world charms and new world treachery with vibrant depictions so convincing that you can practically taste the spaghetti alla vongole and hear the din of the vaporettos in the canals. Every scene bursts forth with the minute detail and stylish prose of a master of the genre. Lovers of crime fiction will embrace Commissario Brunetti and his cohorts in these exhilarating new additions to the annals of mystery.

INTRODUCTION TO ACQUA ALTA

Complex, moral, gracious, and fiercely loyal, Commissario Guido Brunetti is a husband, father, detective, and, above all, a proud resident of the enchanted floating city of Venice. But when Brunetti's old friend, Brett Lynch, an American expatriate—and distinguished art historian—is horribly beaten by thugs in the apartment she shares with her lover, the commanding and strong-willed opera diva Flavia Petrelli, the detective embarks upon an investigation that will lead him deep into the underworld of his beautiful city, where crooked deals and stolen antiquities abound and petty crooks and distinguished citizens alike operate under their own inscrutable rules and baroque code of ethics.

But in a city where everybody knows everybody else's business, it's hard to keep secrets for very long. Although Brunetti's trusted sources offer him valuable insights, Venice's shadowy, secretive antiquities market proves more difficult to infiltrate than the detective imagined, and he soon finds himself with a handful of half-clues and scraps of scattered evidence. Brunetti has other problems, as well: for one, he's locked in a delicate and potentially troublesome power struggle with his social-climbing boss, Vice-Questore Patta, who both resents Brunetti and relies on him to solve the city's most high-profile cases. Meanwhile, Venice has entered its rainy season, and the detective finds himself battling sheets of driving rain, and trying to chase down information about Brett's attackers proves to be almost as elusive as sunlight.

Still, after a man's body is discovered, it's up to Brunetti to figure out what a murder victim, an antiques dealer, a stranger with Mafia connections, and a group of forged Chinese antiquities all have to do with one another. Suddenly, everything and everyone Brunetti thought he trusted—his sources, Brett, Flavia, even his own family—become objects of his suspicions. Is Brett hiding something from Brunetti that he needs to know to conduct his investigation? Is Flavia telling him the truth? Or is Brunetti becoming paranoid himself?

Full of corkscrew plot twists and sharp, pithy observations about family, nationality, and honor, Donna Leon's Acqua Alta takes us into a singular and unforgettable world of beauty, tradition, and greed, where everyone has a secret of their own, and nothing—and no one—is as it seems.

ABOUT DONNA LEON

Donna LeonA New Yorker of Irish/Spanish descent, Donna Leon first went to Italy in 1965, returning regularly over the next decade or so while pursuing a career as an academic in the States and then later in Iran, China and finally Saudi Arabia. It was after a period in Saudi Arabia, which she found ‘damaging physically and spiritually’ that Donna decided to move to Venice, where she has now lived for over twenty years.

Her debut as a crime fiction writer began as a joke: talking in a dressing room in Venice’s opera-house La Fenice after a performance, Donna and a singer friend were vilifying a particular German conductor. From the thought ‘why don’t we kill him?’ and discussion of when, where and how, the idea for Death at La Fenice took shape, and was completed over the next four months.

Donna Leon is the crime reviewer for the London Sunday Times and is an opera expert. She has written the libretto for a comic opera, entitled Dona Gallina. Set in a chicken coop, and making use of existing baroque music, Donna Galliana was premiered in Innsbruck. Brigitte Fassbaender, one of the great mezzo-sopranos of our time, and now head of the Landestheater in Innsbruck, agreed to come out of retirement both to direct the opera and to play the part of the witch Azuneris (whose name combines the names of the two great Verdi villainesses Azucena and Amneris).

A CONVERSATION WITH DONNA LEON

I understand that you've been greatly influenced by British mystery writers such as P. D. James and Ruth Rendell. What is it that you find so appealing about the British mystery tradition? How are British mysteries different from their American counterparts, and how did those writers' books inform your own?

I like to think that the chief influence is the prose style, for the English seem more drawn to formality of expression. My dissertation was on Jane Austen, and it is the novels of an earlier age, with their longer sentences and more discursive style, that appeal to me. It's difficult for any writer to name another who has been an influence, or at least it is difficult to be honest about this. If Ruth Rendell has been an influence—and that is as great a compliment as one could hope to have—it comes from her interest in why people do things rather than in what they did or who might have done it.

There's a wonderful line on page 67 of Acqua Alta about the Italian character—"Lele smiled his crooked smile, one side of his mouth turning down, the other up, a smile Brunetti had always thought best expressed the Italian character, never quite sure of gloom or glee and always ready to switch from one to the other"—and throughout the book, you give us insights into the Italian national identity, which seems to be a mix of fatalism, optimism, pessimism, and clannish pride. Do you consider Brunetti a quintessentially "Italian" character? How did your own understanding of the Italian character change after you moved to Italy? How is it different from the popular wisdom?

It is easier for an outsider to see things, at least to see the obvious things, and it is perhaps the obvious things that people overlook about their own culture. I've spent thirty years here, talking to friends, listening to people chat over coffee in bars, discussing politics while buying zucchini, and so whatever remains in my head about Italy is a compendium of things I've heard and read. Brunetti is a Northerner, and so his inner workings are a bit more Teutonic than would be true of someone in, say, Palermo.

Popular wisdom, huh? I fear that's just another name for cliché. Italians aren't all that different from the rest of us, save that they feel less guilt about the impulse to have fun.

One of the themes in this book concerns Venetians' sharp definitions of who is, and who is not, a true Venetian. You've lived in Venice now for some years; do you feel like a "native"? Why or why not?

No, I'll never be Venetian, though because I fly under the flag of intimate, almost familial, friendship with a number of Venetians, I pass for Venetian with some people. I understand the dialect and always feel a lift in my heart when I get home after a long trip and hear it spoken again. But I'll never be able to speak it without feeling pretentious, and my family is not buried here, and so I'll never be a real Venetian.

Venice holds such a prominent place in the popular imagination that it's a surprise to realize it's actually home to fewer than 100,000 people. What are some of the unique challenges of living in a city that's defined not only by its geographical realities but also by its reputation as a tourist destination? What, in particular, makes Venice the perfect setting for your mysteries?

The official population is now only about 60,000, I think. It is a setting for mysteries because of the combination of cliché and myth that surrounds the city. It is believed to be romantic, mysterious, faintly sinister, when in truth it is a tiny provincial town that happens to be extraordinarily beautiful in almost every angle but which is now buried under a wave of tourism that makes daily life at times insupportable.

To which character do you relate the most? Like Brett, you are an American who leads an independent, expatriate life; like Flavia, you enjoy a peripatetic existence; like Brunetti, you are also a passionate Venetian. Is there one character—or many—you consider a stand-in for yourself?

I suppose, if anyone, I am a combination of Brunetti and Paola. My heart is Paola's, with her often impulsive solution to problems, while my head tries to retain Brunetti's calm, with varied success.

Many of the characters in Acqua Alta are imprisoned (to varying degrees) by tradition, their sense of honor, or their cultural obligations. As an American in Italy, do you ever feel you are expected to adhere to a certain predetermined persona? What is that persona?

Nope. One of the wonderful things about Italians is that they don't much care what other people do. They might gossip about it, but they are slow to express moral judgments about a person's behavior. Further, foreigners seem to fall into a different category: we'd all prefer to gossip about the people we know, anyway.

There's a sense in this book that beauty—whether a city's or an object's—can assert its own brand of tyranny; would you say that's accurate? Do you ever find yourself feeling oppressed by Venice's beauty? Do you personally believe there are certain things we should or should not do for the sake of beauty?

No, I'm never oppressed by it: the worst that happens is that I fail to notice it at times. The trouble starts, I think, when the value of beauty ceases to be aesthetic and becomes financial. Once a price tag is put on a painting or a fresco, it suddenly becomes desirable to people who might otherwise ignore it or remain inert to its beauty. I think the thing we should do with beauty is respond to it, not desire to own it.

Acqua Alta is, in many ways, a story of the relationship between Brett and Flavia. Appropriately enough, the book opens with a lovely epigraph from Mozart's Don Giovanni. Can we see this epigraph as a sort of statement about Flavia and Brett's relationship? To whom do you imagine the "she" of the epigraph refers? Flavia? Brett? Or someone else entirely?

I think the epigraph comes from Don Ottavio, a character who has always seemed pretty much a dope to me, pining endlessly for Donna Anna. In the context of the book, yes, it could be Brett pining for Flavia and with about as much hope as poor Don Ottavio has.

As we're reminded throughout the book, the Italian interpretation of law and order is somewhat more lax than how it might be applied here. Do you think it's correct to say that the Italians value—or are concerned with—different things in their legal system than are Americans? How did those differences affect your writing a murder mystery?

My sense of Italian law is that they are suspicious of the state's integrity or competence, and so they provide a long series of appeals. Hence court cases seem never to end or if they do end, they often renew themselves with phoenixlike regularity and go on again. This reality is reflected in the endings of many of the books, where there can be no sense that things have ended or ended fairly.

Fans of your work are now familiar with Commissario Brunetti. What are some of the challenges of writing a recurring character? What are some of the advantages? Who is your favorite character in Acqua Alta, and why?

The major challenge is not to get tired of the whole thing, to keep having fun writing them. I still do. The advantage is that both writer and, one hopes, reader will form attachments to certain characters and continue to want to find out what happens to them. My favorite character is Flavia, not because I particularly like her but because of her voice. At the end of the book, she goes off to sing her first Handel opera, a move I made her make so that, should she return in some other book, she will be singing the music I love and would love to write about.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Donna Leon's stories paint a vivid picture of a Venice full of intrigue, with beauty and corruption in almost equal measures. How does the Venice of her books compare to the Venice of popular imagination—or to the real Venice?
     
  2. Commissario Brunetti often uses his own experience (for example, as a loving father and husband) to understand the perpetrators' motives. Do you think the antagonists in these two mysteries are at all sympathetic characters? Why or why not?
     
  3. A unique feature of Commissario Brunetti is that he comes home to a family he values above all else. In what ways does his being a family man make him a better detective? How does this compare to the typical characteristics of a great hero in mystery novels?

A NOBLE RADIANCE

  1. Pucetti says to Brunetti, "We're getting a lot of Albanians and Slavs, and you know what thieves they are." Brunetti notes that while he tends to agree with Pucetti, his wife Paola would have reacted angrily to such a statement. What do you think this says about Brunetti's character? Why did the author choose to include the disclaimer about Paola?
     
  2. When Brunetti discusses nuclear science with his medical radiology researcher brother, he laments the technological advances at the expense of human lives. Roberto Lorenzoni turns out to be a peripheral victim to nuclear power, an Icarus who falls because of his own curiosity. Do you think, as Brunetti seems to, that Chernobyl was reason enough to stop building new nuclear reactors? Why or why not?
     
  3. Brunetti is "In love with his wife, proud of his children, capable of doing his job well, why would he worry about happiness, and what more than these things could happiness be comprised of?" How might one answer such a question? In what ways might happiness be separate from the things he listed?
     
  4. What was Count Lorenzoni's motive for killing his nephew Maurizio? What motivates the count's actions? Was it love for his wife or love of himself?
     
  5. Brunetti quotes from Cicero, "To understand the relationship between one phenomenon and another and the causes and consequences of each one." What is the significance of this quote? How does it relate to the events of Roberto Lorenzoni's short life? How does it relate to Brunetti's own life? In what ways do you think justice has been served with respect to Count Lorenzoni? What kind of punishment do you think Paolo Filippi deserved?

UNIFORM JUSTICE

  1. In your opinion, was Commissario Brunetti right to let Signor Moro make the decision about whether or not to pursue justice in his son's death? What might you have done in Signor Moro's situation?
     
  2. If, like Signor Moro, you knew that a report you were compiling about government corruption was endangering your family's lives, would you drop everything to save your family or pursue the truth in spite of threats? Would you be able to separate yourself from your family and live without them as Moro did in order to save them?
     
  3. Brunetti manages to conduct a casual conversation with Giuliano Ruffo, one of the students at the academy, before being pushed out the door by the barking comandante. Why do you think Ruffo felt comfortable talking to Brunetti?
     
  4. When Brunetti reaches for the phone to call Signora Moro, he says, "Who was it whose gaze could turn people to stone? The Basilisk? Medusa? With serpents for hair and an open glaring mouth." What is the significance of these images?
     
  5. Dottor Moro asks Brunetti whether or not he has read the short story The Death of Ivan Ilych. How does this relate to Moro's dilemma? What are the parallels between Moro's life and Ivan Ilych's?
     
  6. When Signorina Elettra tells Brunetti the story of the girl who cried rape at the academy but never pressed charges, he replies, "Tanto fumo, poco arrosto." Why does Brunetti add quickly, "But thank God for the girl"? Why does Signorina Elettra go cold upon hearing his response to the story? How did you react to Brunetti's nonchalance? Was your first impulse to believe that the girl in the story was raped or not?
     
  7. Brunetti uses scare tactics to force a confession from Filippi's roommate, Cappellini. The testimony would not be permissible in any court of law, but his words sound more truthful than almost anything anyone else has been able to tell Brunetti. What purpose does this truth-serum affirmation serve to the rest of the story? Without it, could you have believed Filippi's dramatic tale of suicide as autoerotic accident?

ACQUA ALTA

  1. Water—specifically, the rising waters from the driving rains that lend the book its title—is one of the recurring leitmotifs of Acqua Alta. Consider Leon's use of water throughout the book; what is it a metaphor for? How do the different characters react to the water, and what does that say about them? Think, for example, of how Brunetti's view of the waters differs from, say, that of Salvatore La Capra's (p. 355). Finally, consider the city's relationship to water; how is Venice shaped (both literally and figuratively) by water? What do you think Leon is saying about the unpredictability (and power) of nature and man's ability to live with it?
     
  2. Acqua Alta is peopled with a number of colorful characters—Commissario Brunetti, of course, but also Flavia, Brett, and the La Capras. But the most important character is not a person at all—it's the city of Venice. Consider each of the major characters' relationship to the city; what does their affinity for (or dislike of) this city on the water reveal about their personalities? What literary devices does Leon employ to make the city into a character? Can you think of other books in which the location becomes as important to the plot as the characters' own lives and machinations?
     
  3. Like his friend Lele and his wife, Paola, Brunetti is a die-hard Venetian, fiercely proud of everything that makes his city unique, from its exceptional beauty to its many flaws. As Leon reminds us throughout the book, Venice is a small and tightly-knit city, a city both intensely cliquish and dependent upon tourism for fresh influxes of cash. How are outsiders characterized by Brunetti and his fellow Venetians? How do you think Brunetti would define "Venetian-ness"? How important is his Venetian identity to Brunetti? To the other characters?
     
  4. Acqua Alta provokes many questions about regional and national identity; there's the Venetians, of course, but other characters are also defined by their countries or regions of origins. Consider, for example, how Americans are depicted in this book; what is Brunetti's attitude towards them? How about Leon's? Do you agree or disagree with the characterization of Americans? Do you believe that each country has its own national identity?
     
  5. What are the other ways in which the characters in this book are identified by those around them? How do different characters define themselves, and how are those definitions different from the ones imposed upon them? (Consider here not just the La Capras, but Brett, and Flavia, and even Brunetti himself.) What do you think it is about Signorina Elettra, for example, that makes her such a mystery to Brunetti? How does Donna Leon play on our assumptions about each character's identity? (For example, did you begin the novel believing one thing about Brett—only to have to reassess your assumptions soon after?)
     
  6. Acqua Alta is a mystery, of course, but it is also a series of love stories: between man and woman, between woman and woman, between man and place, between man and beauty. What other kinds of portraits of love are depicted in this book? Do you think Leon places more importance on one kind of love than another? What do you think is the most valuable sort of love a person can feel?
     
  7. Along with regional identity, Brunetti—and many of his fellow Venetians—are also quite interested in people's class and heritage. On page 262, Brunetti muses on the sort of man Signor La Capra is—and finds him suspicious. What is Brunetti's attitude toward those with "new money"? Do you think Brunetti himself is a snob, or are his feelings justified? Why or why not? How are the very rich characterized in this book?
     
  8. Consider the many different definitions of "honor" in Acqua Alta. Honor is very important to all the characters in the book, and yet they all interpret the concept in different ways. Compare, for example, Brunetti's definition of "honor" versus the way he understands how the La Capras might interpret it (page 377)? How are Flavia's and Brett's understandings of honor different from each other's? How would you personally define the concept?
     
  9. Leon has created a wonderfully vivid character in Flavia Petrelli—prickly, passionate, complex, and sympathetic, she is in many ways the novel's heart. How would you characterize her relationship with Brett? How does it change or reveal itself over the course of the book? How does her relationship with Brunetti develop as the book unfolds? Finally, how has your own assessment of Flavia been transformed by the end of the book?
     
  10. Acqua Alta ends with one final mystery. Do you think Brett thought La Capra's prized bowl was genuine when she destroyed it? Why or why not? What might this tell us about Brett, her values and passion for art? And do you agree with Flavia's comment, "It doesn't matter, does it" (p. 387)?

BEASTLY THINGS

  1. Consider the book’s title: Beastly Things. Thinking beyond the clear connection to the animals at the slaughterhouse, what else could the title be referring to?

  2. Leon writes, “Brunetti had always assumed that most people were strongly motivated by greed” (p. 256). For which characters did this hold true? What else motivated various characters in Beastly Things?

  3. Who is the most morally sound character in the book? The most immoral?

  4. Consider the book’s epigraph: “He who wants to do evil is not eager that the evil in his heart be seen” (p. ix). How is this sentiment reflected in the book’s characters and storyline?

  5. Reflect on the story Dottor Nava told his son about the cowardly dog (p. 214). What is the overarching message of the allegory? How was it reflected in Nava’s own life?

  6. Discuss the importance of Paola successfully blocking the dishonest professor from receiving tenure. Why did Leon include this subplot? What value does it add to the book’s themes and narrative?

  7. At what point did you piece together the details of Nava’s murder? Did your first suspicions turn out to be correct?

  8. What is the central moral quandary of this book?

  9. How did you feel reading the scene inside the slaughterhouse? Did the description of the animals being killed, and the description of sick animals being accepted for slaughter, change your attitude toward meat consumption?

  10. Signorina Elettra said she’d trade in her vote in Italy for a washing machine. Where else in the story does this sentiment surface? Given your impressions of the Italian political system, do you agree with her?

  11. In contemplating the corruption in the Italian political system, Brunetti felt “trapped in the mixture of rage and despair that was the only honest emotion left to the citizenry” (p. 137). Can you draw any parallels between that statement and the American political system or political debate?