Italy · review

Beastly Things by Donna Leon

Beastly Things is the latest novel in the Commissario Guido Brunetti series by Donna Leon, and it’s the first book I’ve read in the series.  So this review is my take, with fresh eyes.  Brunetti is a detective in Venice, and he’s a Venice native.  It’s a police procedural that spends plenty of time with Brunetti’s family as well as with his police colleagues and the people he interviews while investigating the crime.

Brunetti is a well-read family man.  It’s refreshing to read about a non-screwed-up detective without, as far as I can tell, a dark past.  Brunetti is a bit tortured by his interest in his colleague Signora Elettra, the police’s resident hacker, and he’s tortured a bit by bureaucracy in the police force and government corruption, but he doesn’t seem totally overwhelmed. He seems to succeed at compartmentalizing his family life from his work life, but his work does wear on him heavily.

The actual murder investigation starts with the discovery of an unidentified body in a canal in Venice, and it takes Brunetti to the mainland as well.  The title of the book relates to the concurrent story about factory farming and government inspection of meat.  Vegetarianism is a big topic for at least one of his work colleagues as well as his daughter.  Also, there’s a parallel between the murder investigation and Brunetti’s wife’s work at a university, but Leon doesn’t belabor it.

What I appreciated most about the book is that the book began and ended with the murder victim: the story began with his body on the autopsy table and ended with his funeral, which is a nice touch.  It humanizes the story.  I think overall the series sounds quite humane.

Beastly Things by Donna Leon

Atlantic Monthly Press

Publication date: April 17, 2012

Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

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9 thoughts on “Beastly Things by Donna Leon

  1. Rebecca – I’m glad you enjoyed your first taste of this series. I’ll admit I haven’t had the chance to read this yet although I will. But I really do like the series quite a lot, and I believe you’ll find the the novels overall quite good. Brunetti is indeed refreshing in that he’s not filled with personal demons, he’s not an alcoholic loner, and so on. And I do like his family, in particular his wife Paola. I hope you’ll continue to dip into this series. But then again, I’m biased…

    1. Thanks for the information about the series, Margot. I’ll definitely get back to this series, most likely when I’ve had my fill of dysfunctional main characters. One thing this book has definitely done is made me more committed to vegetarian cooking.

  2. Nice review. I haven’t read this one yet but have read most if not all of the series. I am finding it is becoming rather formulaic, but it is a good series, particularly in its depcition of a non-neurotic detective with a happy family life ;-). I have wished she’d developed the character of Sgra Ellettra more, as her main role in the books is simply to find out protected information “by magic” and pass it to Brunetti – it sounds from your review as if this may indeed have happened in this book, so I shall probably read it (though other reviews recently have been less positive).

    1. Maxine- I forgot to link to other reviews at the end of this post, but I have noticed some of the reviews are not that positive. I’m not sure how this compares to other books in the series, but I’m willing to try a few more books in the series.

  3. Your take on this novel is very interesting to me, coming as you are into the series for the first time. I have read pretty much every one of the Brunetti novels and I like them a lot. To me, one of the most stunning things about them is Donna Leon’s depiction of Italian and in particular Venetian society. I have spent a fair amount of time in Italy myself, and she captures many of the heart-breaking paradoxes that mark Italian society — the wonderful food, the sheer beauty of the cities, the warmth of family life, and then the underside, the corruption, the domination of society by massive hierarchical structures — so much and more is right there in Leon’s novels. You mention that Brunetti is tortured by … government corruption etc but not overwhelmed. This is so, I think, but while he is not overwhelmed, his work is marked by the constant knowledge that cases may be solved but the real culprits are often not brought to justice. The fact that Leon’s novels remain highly entertaining and do not drown under the weight of social criticism is a testimony to her skill as a writer. And to her adaptation to Italian society!

  4. Dorothy- Your comment definitely makes me want to read more books in this series. It’s always interesting to see how books set in other countries take on their imperfect justice systems. That’s not to say that I think the American justice system is perfect (far from it), but what’s interesting is comparing what I know about our criminal justice system to others.

    1. Yes, Rebecca, I think this kind of comparison is extremely interesting. You might try Leon’s “Death in a Strange Country” which also involves the American military.

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