Michael Vestey

The murky side of Murano

Text settings

Through a Glass, Darkly

Donna Leon

Heinemann, pp. 256, £

This is Donna Leon’s 15th Commissario Guido Brunetti novel set in Venice and once again the author succeeds in capturing the light and shade of a city that has plenty of both. As in this edition she even provides maps, including the island of Murano, so that the reader can follow the detective’s various per- ambulations in search of the solution to a mystery, also slipping into the story details of which vaporetti stops he uses when he’s not summoning a police launch to take him out across the lagoon to an inhospitable outcrop where, perhaps, a body has been found. Leon is good at portraying the social tensions, the rivalry between and even the resentments of, say, the people of Murano and those who live in other districts. In fact, a glass-blowing factory on Murano is at the heart of this story.

Brunetti receives a call from his trusty inspector Lorenzo Vianello telling him a friend, Marco, has been arrested during an environmental demonstration and can they get him out? It turns out that Marco was blameless but was simply rounded up by the over-zealous police. He’s freed, but the trio encounter Marco’s volcanic father-in-law who owns the glass factory. The old man, it transpires, is terminally ill and is convinced Marco only married his daughter so that he could inherit the business and has issued threats to kill him which the daughter believes are genuine. Brunetti, with nothing much better to do, begins an investigation, with the invaluable help of the lovely Signorina Elettra. She is a computer genius who has with ease hacked into the Interpol computer to discover that her and Brunetti’s boss, vice-questore Giuseppe Patta, a Sicilian whose main role in life is to avoid upsetting the city’s bigwigs, has failed to land a job with the organisation. She discovers this even before he’s been informed himself. No computer in the world is safe from her raids, much to the astonishment of Brunetti, who can’t work a computer at all.

However, it’s not Marco’s body that is found rapidly decomposing close to the glass fornace where temperatures are 1,348 degrees centigrade, it is that of l’uomo di notte, the night watchman Giorgio Tassini whose twin baby daughter is brain-damaged from, he believes, chemical pollution from the factory. Although Tassini is convinced he’s found the evidence showing that toxic substances are being drained into the lagoon and the surrounding land, in reality his daughter’s affliction was caused by his own stubbornness in refusing to allow his wife to have her twins by caesarean section in hospital and insisting she stay at home where during the difficult birth the child is starved of oxygen. But someone on Murano wants him out of the way. Once Brunetti solves the crime he expects obstruction from Patta, but to his amazement the vice-questore embraces the investigation with enthusiasm: there’s an axe to grind here, of course. Brunetti is an unusual detective in that he isn’t divorced or neurotic but a happily married man with two teenage children who keeps a copy of Gibbon by his bed. He has married into one of Venice’s grandest families and his wife Paola is a leftish university lecturer who, I suspect, reflects some of Donna Leon’s own political preferences. The star of the book though, is, as usual, the slightly seedy magnificence of Venice and all its complexities.