Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Murder in Venice: Acqua Alta by Donna Leon

Crime fiction is one of my addictions, so when you add in Italy, archaeology and opera, this book ticks quite a lot of my boxes. Donna Leon follows the conventional crime fiction path - her hero Guido Brunetti is a kind of Italian Morse, though his family life is happier (he does have one!) She develops his character with each successive book, and we learn a lot about the chaos and subterfuge of Italian police procedure. There are several police forces in Italy - the Polizia and the Carabiniere are constant rivals with overlapping territories; then there are the money police - the Guardia di Finanza; then the local police called the Polizia Municipale. Quite a minefield.

In Acqua Alta (high water), Venice is flooding with winter rain and high tides. The archaeologist lover of a famous opera singer is beaten almost to death, and the head of the Venice Department of Antiquities is murdered. A digital trail of bank accounts, telephone numbers and hotel bills links the suspects together. Tension is kept high by constant danger from the rising flood water and the shadowy presence of what the Italians call 'the problem of the Mezzogiorno' - the country's troubled south. 'They seemed to be moving north, coming up from Sicily and Calabria, immigrants in their own land.' And they bring with them a level of violence to add to the casual corruption that keeps Italy ticking over.

Donna Leon illustrates this well in the novel. The archaeologist is American and doesn't understand the way Italy works 'in nero' ie on the black side of the economy. Brunetti skirts past bureacratic restrictions with the ease and charm of a true Venetian, quoting ironic asides on the Italian attitudes to law and order. 'The Germans, it was rumoured, saw the law as something to be obeyed, unlike the Italians, who saw it as something first to be fathomed and then evaded.'

You have to know how the system works in Italy - even nurses in the hospital have to be given tips to change the sheets on the bed, and back handers are regularly given to advance a patient up the queue for treatment.

Leon shows graphically the almost farcical results of this corruption - a hospital built without drains, lying empty and vandalised. 'The opening cermony had been held, there had been speeches and the press had come, but the building had never been used....... it had been planned like this from the very moment of inception, planned so that the builder would get not only the original contract to construct the new pavilion but the work, later , to destroy much of what had been built in order to install the forgotten drains.'

This is the Italy of Berlusconi, where 'Colpo Grosso' - a kind of D-list celebrity strip show with lots of silicone - was the highest rated TV show.

Donna Leon is a Professor of English, married to an Italian and living in Venice. Her books are intelligent and well written and I can recommend them as a Good Read.

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