Monday, August 8, 2011

Monday Book Review: DRESSED FOR DEATH by Donna Leon - A Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery.

August is an almost unbearably hot and humid month in Venice where air conditioning seems not to be the norm and open windows fail to catch even a hint of the Adriatic breeze. Commissario Guido Brunetti, his professor wife Paola and their kids are on the verge of going to the mountains for a well-deserved holiday when, not unexpectedly, murder interferes with their plans in this, the third book in the on-going series written by American ex-pat and expert in all things Venetian, Donna Leon.

Sending a disgruntled Paola and the kids ahead with promises of trying to join them later, Brunetti must go inland to Mestre, where an unidentified man has been found beaten to death, his body deposited just outside a slaughter house. Since the body was dressed in a cheap red dress and high-heeled shoes, it is assumed at first, second and third glance to be that of a transvestite - one of many who ply their trade in that particular area. Killed by his john, most likely.

But something about the murder makes Brunetti - Donna Leon's engaging and intuitive Italian cop - cautious to jump on the bandwagon. When the body is finally identified as that of an upstanding director of the Banca di Verona, his death sensationalized by the tabloid press, Brunetti finds himself working a case that will place him and his investigators in the path of a ruthless killer.

The list of suspects runs the gamut from the transvestite prostitutes who ply the streets - those whose clients are working men who stop by before they head home to their wives and kids - to a beautiful male courtesan whose acute nervousness alerts Brunetti, to another director of the same Banca di Verona, all too helpful to reveal a startling confession made to him by the dead man, to a member of the higher echelons of society, the Venice director of La Lega della Moralita, a suave lawyer who may or may not be hiding his own secret life.

Back at the office, there is other more interesting (at least to the cops who work there) intrigue going on as Vice-Questore Patta - Brunetti's incompetent boss - is involved in a sensational domestic situation: after seventeen years of marriage, his wife has run off with a maker of porno films.

How Brunetti must tip-toe around the mine field that is Patta's personality while daring to continue to
investigate the upstanding lawyer who heads the mysterious church related charity known as La Lega della Moralita shows admirable cunning, finesse and intelligence - the things that make Brunetti a great cop. The rather obvious irony of a member of a group whose main reason for existence is to 'protect morality' and administer to the deserving poor, being suspected of the most venal of crimes is par for the course in Brunetti's world.

While Venice steams, he attempts to stay cool as the frustrating case careens to a dead end and the reputation of a good and solid man lies in ruins. But at least Brunetti eats well. The copious amounts of delicious Italian food described by the author is enough to send the reader foraging in the kitchen. Pasta and a simple tomato sauce, not to mention a dessert of plain sweet figs, has never sounded so good.

Donna Leon is a master at maneuvering the convoluted Italian police system as well as the quagmire which is Italian politics. Brunneti must always keep the niceties of politics in mind when attempting to discover the often dangerous and murderous truth of a situation.

A terrific book.

To check out the complete list of Donna Leon's Brunetti books, please go here.


  1. Oh, I am so glad you liked this book. I was holding my breath waiting for the Donna Leon reviews to be posted.

    I realize that I have forgotten much of this book -- as many others -- and am glad to be reminded of what takes place. It's making me want to reread all of the Brunetti series.

    And I'm glad that the food descriptions were sufficient for you -- enough to send a reader to the kitchen. (And for me to ardently wish a trattoria or cafe was right around the corner where I could get cappucinno and sfloglatella or biscotti).

    Well, I can't wait for the next reviews. All of these books are good.

    Friends of mine are also addicted to this series. They went to Venice and looked for Brunetti's haunts and paths.

    Great! I enjoy it so much when other readers like a series which I love.

  2. Kathy: Glad you enjoyed the review. :)

    I also reviewed the first Brunetti book: DEATH AT LA FENICE a few weeks ago. (In case you forgot.)

    I've read three so far besides AQUA ALTA which I read a couple of years ago.

    I may read one more then I need to switch over to a bunch of other books that are anxiously awaiting my attention. :)

    You know how it is. Never enough time. My TBR list is HUMONGOUS!

  3. Yes, of course I remember the review of La Fenice. I was thinking of it when I read this one.

    I knew you had read the two books with a character whose name I love -- Flavia Petrelli.

    I regard that book as slightly different from the rest of the series. There wasn't much discussion of Brunetti's home life nor did one meet some of the other characters.

    So I was waiting to see what you thought of the next book.

  4. Kathy: Now that you mention it, it was different. Though it was an excellent 'first' book in the series.

  5. Here is a delightful interview with Donna Leon. She is so interesting talking about Italian society and politics as well as Guido and Paola Brunetti. (It's fun to hear fans ask her questions; some people think these are real people)

  6. Thanks for the suggestion! I've been in a bit of a reading funk lately.

  7. Kathy: Thanks. I'll definitely look into it. I've read interviews with Donna Leon before. Not all authors are as interesting as she is.

  8. Lauren: Don't you hate when that happens? Maybe you need a trip to Venice with Commissario Brunetti. :)

  9. It's an interview where Dnnna Leon is asked questions by audience members who've read her books.

    So one hears her voice, and that of the rather pompous emcee of the discussion.


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