Dressed for Death

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Dressed for Death.jpg

Having outlined a semi-formulaic plot line for Donna Leon’s Brunetti series (Brunetti is going about his 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) let’s see how Dressed for Death fits in.

It’s high summer, Venice is hot as Hades and Brunetti’s family are booked to escape to the mountains for a vacation when the inevitable murder upsets the apple cart. In this case the victim is, it seems, a transvestite whore found beaten to death with his face bashed in, presumably to render him unrecognisable., in a field outside an abattoir outside Mestre, the nearest mainland centre to Venice. 

Under ordinary circumstances it wouldn’t be a matter for the Venetian constabulary at all, but two of Mestre’s comissarios are on vacation, a third broke a leg in a car accident and the fourth is about to go on maternity leave. When Vice Questore Patta, undergoing a major personal crisis after his wife of twenty-seven years has run off with a director of porno movies, is asked to provide an investigator he summons Brunetti. Of the other two candidates for the investigation one is otherwise occupied and the other is on vacation. Ssince he’s not actually busy at the moment, Brunetti gets the case.

His own vacation, according to Patta, can wait and, in any case it’s obviously a straightforward murder of a prostitute by a client. All Brunetti has to do, at least the way Patta sees it, is to check with the pimp involved, get a list of clients, everything will be straightforward and he’ll have no trouble getting away on vacation. 

As Brunetti’s leaving Patta’s office he notices new furniture in the anteroom, but he heads off to Mestre to begin the investigation, finding that as far as the cops on the ground are concerned it’s an open and shut case they’d rather not be worrying about too much. 

There’s a particularly unpleasant homophobic sergeant, who succeeds in getting Brunetti’s back up, which may have been one of the factors that contribute to his determination to actually solve the case. There’s also the fact that, after he’s seen the corpse at the morgue Brunetti’s realised that it wasn’t a body anyone would pay to use.

And in the early stages of the investigation, when they’re still trying to identify the victim Brunetti encounters Giancarlo Santomauro of the Lega della Moralita in the apartment of a male prostitute who recognizes the victim’s picture although he won’t admit he does. At that point he doesn't, Brunetti realizes he's up against something considerably more sordid than a sex killing.

Before too long they’ve identified the dead man as Leonardo Mascari, upstanding director of the Venice branch of the Bank of Verona  and from there it isn’t too long before his death has been sensationalised in the tabloid press and Brunetti finds himself tracking a scheme involving tax fraud, a protection racket and a religious group renting apartments  supposedly set aside for the needy to transvestites and otherwise undeserving types. 

The highlight of this episode in the series, given her pivotal role in future investigations, is the appearance of Signorina Elettra Zorzi, hired as Patta’s secretary after he had been going on for months, insisting that he had too much paperwork to handle by himself. Having transformed the reception area outside Patta’s inner sanctum, which formerly resembled a waiting room at a run down medical practice, she has arranged for biweekly deliveries of fresh flowers from the city’s leading florist. Not for Patta’s office, of course. (“It wouldn’t be right to spend the taxpayers’ money like that”). From there it’s fairly obvious we’re dealing with a canny operator, and within a hundred pages there’s this little exchange between Brunetti and his legwork man Vianello:

... see if you can get Signorina Elettra to find anything there might be about the finances of the Lega, or Santamauro, or Crespo, or Mascari. Tax returns, bank statements, loans. That information should be available.

And, as it turns out, it is. Like evverything else in the early stages of the series Signorina Elettra hits the ground close to fully formed and running. Although what she manages to unearth unveils the details of an extremely lucrative scam (so lucrative that Santomauro appears to be completely honest when filling out his tax return, which, of course, suggests a much stronger flow of income from another, undeclared, source) it isn’t enough to pin the charges on the prime suspect for the actual killings. That requires one of those strokes of luck that might suggest that, yes, there is a Santa Claus.

© Ian Hughes 2012