Quietly in Their Sleep

Wednesday, 24 July 2013 


When it comes to #6 in Donna Leon’s Brunetti series, readers with a strong attachment to Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular are probably best advised to exercise caution. I’m not in that number myself, and found Quietly in Their Sleep a riveting read, but it heads into waters that will possibly leave some feeling uneasy.

Let’s just underline three words there: possibly, some and uneasy. There’ll be a section of the community where those three words could be upgraded (into probably, most and angry), but having noted the underlinings they’ll probably have the common sense to avert their eyes without further warnings if they spot comments that the plot focuses on the question of how much power religious organisations should wield in a democracy.

I may be wrong as far as the Leon modus operandi is concerned, but I have an impression from something I’ve read on line that each story in the extensive series starts from an idea or two and is then written out to see what happens, where it goes and whether it works. 

In this case the starting points would appear to be Brunetti’s mother, suffering from dementia and confined to a nursing home (casa di cura), daughter Chiara’s unblemished (to this point) academic record and Vice-Questore Patta’s absence on what is rumoured to be a second honeymoon. 

Start with that last one, because with the boss away there are opportunities for the unsupervised underlings to do things and explore possibilities in a manner that wouldn’t be possible under normal circumstances. It’s coming into spring, things are quiet and they have time on their hands.

That means when Maria Testa, until recently Suor’Immacolata of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, turns up in Commissario Guido Brunetti’s office with concerns about recent deaths in the nursing home where she was employed there’s a window of opportunity to check these matters out. 

Until a year ago she’d been working at the casa di cura where Brunetti’s mother lives and she’d impressed Brunetti with her kindness to her patients in general and his mother in particular. Then she’d been transferred to another nursing home, where she’s begun to suspect irregularities. Unable to persuade anyone in authority to act on her suspicions and left the Order, bringing her concerns to the civil, rather than the religious, authorities. The irregularities involve deaths that do not seem to have been natural and suspicions that the clergy have been manipulating residents into leaving them large sums in their wills. 

No Patta means Brunetti and Vianello are free to set about interviewing relatives of recently deceased residents of the casa di cura and some of the staff, and although they come across a number of eccentric and disagreeable characters (the snuff box collector being a prime example, a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work) there’s no concrete evidence that a crime has been committed. 

That investigation takes place against a background where Chiara’s report card arrives and, for once, there’s a low mark. It’s for the equivalent of Religious Education, which is a thorny subject given Brunetti’s status as a non-believer and Paola’s ferociously anticlerical point of view, but the discussion around the dinner table suggests the priest who takes the R.I. classes has some personal peccadilloes and while Chiara hasn’t been caught up in them she has friends who have and she’s not happy about it. That, in turn, brings Paola out all guns blazing and willing to go to any lengths to protect her children.


© Ian Hughes 2012