Watching the Watcher: Navigating Venice with Commissario Brunetti

 

 

My heart speeds up on news that Donna Leon’s got a new police procedural, because I love her Guido Brunetti. Not in a romantic way, of course—I must respect his deep fidelity to his wife Paola, an expert on Henry James and Italian cooking—but because it’s another blissful chance to follow Brunetti through Venice, watch him navigate the internal politics of the Venice Questura, and think with him as he solves a murder. Another murder.

Leon invites us in by using Brunetti’s point of view, letting us share his reflections and observations.

Barely computer literate, he relies for key financial and personal investigations on the astounding internet skill of Signorina Elettra Zorzi, secretary to his adversary and boss, Palermo native Vice-Questore Patta. Brunetti thinks of Zorzi as “quick-witted, radiant—the other adjectives that presented themselves all suggested light and visibility.” Neither we nor Brunetti question how she manages to get her hands on such information. Leon amplifies the mystery of Zorzi’s improbable presence in police headquarters by Brunetti’s frequent observations of Zorzi’s clothes, which reflect her precision and elegance. But Brunetti’s observations also remind the reader that he’s a Venetian through and through, thus susceptible to and respectful of beauty:

Behind her desk, looking as though she was there only to meet the photographers from Vogue, sat Signorina Elettra Zorzi, today arrayed, as were the lilies of the field, in a white crepe de chine dress that fell in diagonal, but decidedly provocative, folds across her bosom. (Death and Judgment)

Or:

Her blouse, he noticed, was the colour of beetroot and had white buttons down the front and on the cuff. It fell with the liquid grace of silk. (The Temptation of Forgiveness)

On the dark side, we also see Brunetti’s adversaries at the Questura through his visual observations of the two Palermo natives, Vice-Questore Patta and Lieutenant Scarpa. Here’s the “universally despised” Scarpa:

Scarpa propelled himself away from the door jamb with a quick shove of his left shoulder. One instant he’d been lounging casually; the next he was upright and much taller. The speed with which he uncoiled his easy, limp posturing reminded Brunetti of snakes he’d seen in television documentaries: leave them alone and they lie coiled, still as death; make a sound and they become a whiplash unbraiding in the sun, multiplying the range within which they can strike.

We get it, Guido. Through your eyes we get Scarpa’s character completely, just as we do with the boss, Vice-Questore Patta. In the following scene Patta wants Brunetti to investigate a leak from the Questura that apparently reflects badly on Patta:

Uncertain how to respond…Brunetti returned his glance to his superior’s jacket and the hand-stitched buttonholes. Beauty was where you found it, and it was always comforting to see.

When Patta demands what Brunetti’s looking at, Brunetti responds honestly that he’s admiring the buttonholes. But when Patta insinuates that Brunetti must know about the leaks because his subordinates talk to him:

Hearing Patta’s suspicion relaxed Brunetti and told him that, though the subject might be new, the old, adversarial order had been restored. He tossed away his momentary warming towards Patta and returned to his native good sense.

His native good sense requires eternal caution as to Palermitans. In later books Leon makes Patta more layered, almost sympathetic—but Brunetti can’t drop his defenses:

“Ah, good morning, Commissario. Please have a seat, there’s something I’d like to discuss with you,” Patta said, giving a toothy smile that set Brunetti’s own teeth on edge.

“Yes, Vice Questore?” Brunetti inquired neutrally.

“Actually,” Patta began, his teeth now hidden behind his lips, perhaps being sharpened for their next appearance. “It’s about my…it’s about my wife.

“Ah,” was all Brunetti would permit himself. He decided it would be best to seek shelter, so placed a look of mild concern on his face and hid behind that. (Unto Us a Son is Given, 2019)

Leon similarly uses Brunetti’s interactions with his Questura allies to deepen their characters. In the same book, probing the possibility of a drug motive with his hard-working Inspector Vianello, Brunetti inquires about Vianello’s own experience with drugs:

Vianello laughed at Brunetti’s tone and said, “I try to keep some secrets, Guido.”

Just that laugh, that response, tells us the trust level between the two. We all know that how a boss interacts with subordinates exposes the boss’s character. Brunetti trusts his inspector, who returns the favor. Later, trying to respond to a plea for information from his own father-in-law, Brunetti asks Vianello to lunch:

When Vianello demonstrated no desire to discuss the varieties of religious experience, Brunetti thought he’d take further advantage of his friend’s good sense and said, “I’d like to have your opinion about something else, Lorenzo,” using his first name and thus signaling that this was a personal matter.

Had Vianello been a deer grazing in a forest, he could have been no more alert to the change in the normal sounds around him. He raised his head quickly from what he was eating, set his fork down, and gave his attention to his friend.

Here’s another of many examples of how Leon uses Brunetti’s point of view, his visual observations and reactions, to color the atmosphere of a mystery. At the beginning Brunetti has climbed the stairs to his office:

On his desk, Brunetti found what he did not want to find…He had last seen it, perhaps two months ago, when it had spent a week in his in-tray, resting there in the manner of a person a friend brings to dinner, who drinks too much, says nothing during the meal, and then refuses to leave even after the other guests are long gone. (The Temptation of Forgiveness, 2018)

What an image. We feel ourselves standing there with Brunetti, looking at a report we (and Brunetti) do not want to touch. But he’s obliged to deal with it. We feel how Brunetti values good manners and proper behavior, how he would distrust a breach of hospitality. We feel the shivery intrusion of murder just from the unwelcome sight of that sheet of paper in the in-tray, and Brunetti’s unwelcome recognition that he must pick up that paper.

Donna Leon uses other points of view as well—see the beginning of Acqua Alta, where she puts us in the heads of an opera singer and her partner describing the invasion of their apartment by two men who beat up the partner.

Still, I find Leon’s use of Brunetti’s point of view to build the characters of his compatriots and adversaries at the Questura succeeds in giving us one of the most satisfying cast of characters in police procedurals. Brunetti’s point of view, with his idiosyncratic observation of visual detail, provides a sense of immediacy. We practically breathe the atmosphere of the Questura and its inhabitants; at the same time we see into Brunetti’s own character. With good reason, Brunetti’s the man we love to follow through the streets and canals of Venice. As he walks along, allowing us to hear his thoughts, wonder what he’s wondering, and see what he’s seeing, we’re with him as he thinks his way to the solution. We trust Brunetti to lead us there, to finally unmask the murderer. We’re with him all the way.

Next time, thoughts on Fred Vargas and another commissario—Commissaire Jean-Louis Adamsberg of Paris.

***

Helen Currie Foster is author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery novels, the most recent of which is GHOST NEXT DOOR. For more information about Helen and her books, see her website.

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