Friends in High Places

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Having read Tobias Jones' The Dark Heart of Italy and reached the conclusion that writers of Italian crime fiction (or, more accurately, crime fiction set in Italy) are probably understating things on the grounds that non-Italian readers wouldn't believe the reality I found the starting scenes in Donna Leon's Friends In High Places quite believable.

We've got our own heritage bureaucracy, of course, and some of their actions get people in these parts quite het up, but the local authorities wouldn't be too likely to barge into your home suggesting that it might need to demolished because they don't have any record that suggests it exists.

From my readings of Italian crime fiction, on the other hand, I find that situation quite plausible.

In any case, that's the situation Commissario Guido Brunetti finds himself in when a bureaucrat from the Ufficio Catasto calls on him at home one Saturday morning. They're in the process of consolidating the official records and sorting out anomalies and they can't find anything on the official record from the time the top floor apartment was built.

In the process of remonstrating about the obvious absurdity of the situation Brunetti notes that Franco Rossi apparently suffers from an extreme form of vertigo, which makes him suspicious when Rossi is found at the foot of the scaffolding at the front of a property being redeveloped. 

There's a bit of stuffing around at the hospital, and Rossi has ended up dead. When he arrived at the emergency ward with head injuries and two broken arms the doctor decided to send him to Orthopaedics to have the fractures treated before he went into shock. They were supposed to forward him to Neurology, didn't, the patient dies and Brunetti reads about it in the paper and decides to check things out.

It certainly looks like it's either an accident or suicide, but people with a severe dislike of heights don't willingly go climbing on scaffolding, do they?

Equally significant is the fact that Rossi had been in touch with Brunetti regarding something that looks suspiciously like corruption in his workplace. 

As far as the reaction to the threatened demolition of their apartment goes, Brunetti and his wife agree on the approach that needs to be taken, but disagree on who to use to get it done. As far as Paola is concerned her father, a Venetian nobleman with connections right at the top of the pecking order is the obvious choice while Guido reckons they'll be able to call in favours from someone among their friends rather than relying on the father-in-law.

Calling in favours, or expecting them to be done for you is apparently common practice in Venetian circles and Brunetti is required to do a spot of fixing when Vice-Questore Patta’s son is arrested for selling drugs. There's also a disturbing death through an overdose that needs to be investigated but looking into that too closely might have implications for the boss's son.

Along the way Brunetti also becomes aware of the activities of a couple of loan sharks and the whole bundle of strands continually returns to what's emerging as the central theme of Italian crime fiction - cronyism and corruption at the highest levels of government and society, the ways it trickles down through society and what ethical people with some degree of moral integrity can do about it.

In the end, however, there's not a great deal Brunetti can do. Everyone involved (or at least everyone who isn't occupying the very bottom rungs of the pecking order, who don't have too many friends at all) have Friends In High Places and even after he's found Rossi's killer and established the motive behind the killing there's not a great deal he can actually do about it.

He manages, predictably, to do something in his own small way, but it's hardly the sort of consequence the perpetrators deserve and Brunetti's reaction to the personal, moral and professional challenges he encounters that makes the series such a reliable source of reading pleasure.

© Ian Hughes 2012