Death in a Strange Country

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

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Having suggested Donna Leon has managed to land a fully formed character in the first Commissario Brunetti novel, it should come as no surprise to learn there's no hint of continuity from La Fenice to a Strange Country. Where other writers are still finding their feet with the new character and trying out different possibilities, Death in a Strange Country starts the way most Brunetti stories start, and proceeds gradually, step by step from there.

That means, of course, that there's no need to actually read these stories in sequence, since the only long term key character yet to emerge is Signora Elettra and the only reason she hasn’t turned up yet is because she hasn’t been needed.

In other words you could summarise the plot line with a semi-formulaic Brunetti is going about his ordinary day to day business when he’s called to a crime scene, the investigation meanders along and there’s an eventual resolution of some, though not necessarily all, of the issues raised in the course of the investigation.

Expressed in those terms (and the same is more or less true of anything in the genre) there’s not really that much there, and the devil (or, in this case, the charm) is in the detail the author provides to put some flesh on the bare bones, and it’s here that the distinctions that account for differing tastes come in.

James Lee Burke would people the narrative with a liberal helping of well-realised minor characters, a couple of truly impressive psycho and sociopaths and unearth the odd skeleton in several interlocking closets along the way, with frequent reminders of their own mortality and past failings for  the key players. When you’re talking the detail, that, for mine, is the devil, but it will be played out across a prose landscape that’s immaculately realised in writing that goes close to shining.

Andrea Camilleri will have Montalbano running across the Sicilian landscape, interacting with the regular cast and manipulating things to thwart the Commissioner’s efforts to hamstring him, and the whole thing will proceed at a lively clip with a definite raffish charm.

Donna Leon, on the other hand, with Venice as the backdrop and Brunetti as the ordinary family man thrown in to investigate matters that have more to them than meets the eye, moves things through a narrative that has its twists and turns and while we’re often talking serious matters the interaction of weighty issues and a decent human being are the key ingredient in a very well realised series.

Death in a Strange Country starts with the body of a young man found floating in a Venetian canal.He’s been stabbed, and there’s nothing on the body to identify him, but there were some coins in his pocket, and a look at his teeth convinces the coroner the victim was American, which at least provides a starting point for the investigation.

Given that identity and the fact that his wallet is missing it seems reasonable to assume the killing is a drug-related mugging, though a bit of preliminary checking reveals that the area where the body was found is relatively drug free (the garbage man has never complained of finding syringes on the street in the morning). As far as Brunetti’s superior, Vice-Questore Patta, is concerned, there’s a danger to the city’s tourist trade, so Brunetti had better be smart about finding a suitable culprit. Not necessarily the culprit, a culprit. 

To stop him from getting too involved with unnecessary detail Patta hands him the investigation into a burglary from a Grand Canal palazzo which has all the external appearances of an insurance job.


© Ian Hughes 2012