A Venetian Reckoning by Donna Leon: A review

The political corruption and public moral depravity faced by Commissario Guido Brunetti as he attempts to do his job of maintaining law and order in his beloved city of Venice are utterly disheartening and demoralizing. Even just reading about them is disheartening and demoralizing. The depths to which human beings eagerly sink in order to gratify their desires or to enrich or empower themselves is, quite simply, horrifying. 

At one time in the not too distant past, I could have read these stories with more dispassion and objectivity. But today a society's descent into moral turpitude where the rich and powerful are able to befoul the water, air, and soil and to use defenseless fellow human beings in whatever way they choose just hits a bit close to home. Consequently, although I am as charmed as ever by Guido and his family, I found this fourth book in the series difficult reading.

The plot revolves around human trafficking. A group of powerful and influential men in Italy are bringing in women from poor countries - mostly Slavic women from eastern European countries - to be used as prostitutes or in pornographic films, including snuff films where the women are brutalized and killed, that are distributed in Europe and America. Typically, the women are promised jobs or love and marriage and a better life to entice them, but once they get to the country, their passports are taken and they are forced to do their "owners'" bidding.  

All of this, however, is revealed incrementally. We begin with a truck filled with lumber and, as it happens, eight smuggled women, slipping on a snow and ice clogged highway and sliding off the road into a ravine. The driver and all the women are killed. This happens north of Venice and Commissario Brunetti is not involved in the investigation. He is only tangentially aware of it and the entire story soon slips out of the headlines and is essentially forgotten.

Sometime later, in Venice, a rich and powerful businessman is shot and killed in a train and Brunetti is assigned to the case. 

A little later, another businessman dies from carbon monoxide poisoning in his closed garage. The initial autopsy findings show a large dose of barbiturates that would have caused him to be unconscious; then mysteriously, the autopsy findings are altered to support a finding of suicide. 

Brunetti is still puzzling over his initial case when yet another businessman is killed; this one the brother-in-law of the first who had served as accountant for that man's business. He is shot three times just as the man on the train was. Brunetti suspects that all three deaths are related and begins to probe their lives to try to find a connection and a reason why someone might have wanted the three dead.

Brunetti encounters obstacles at every turn, but he has developed his own circle of trusted confidantes, fellow policemen, and persons in positions of power who owe him favors and are willing to find and pass along information to him. He doggedly pursues his investigation, calling on those he trusts for assistance. Obviously, Brunetti has learned to operate in the toxic swill of Venetian politics and survive.

This may be the most pessimistic yet of Donna Leon's Brunetti novels and it is certainly the most graphically violent. Leon lives in Venice and one intuits that she has extensive knowledge of the inner workings of the city and what makes it run. One can only hope for the sake of the Venetians that she is exaggerating for dramatic effect.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars  


  1. This one sounds darker than previous installments. Maybe Leon is exaggerating a bit, but it is also possible there is a healthy dose of reality in her stories. Of course, only Venetians would know that.

    1. It was definitely a lot darker than the other three I've read. Not a bad entry, just difficult (emotionally) to read.

  2. It does sound like these books are getting increasingly dark. One could say she is just keeping up with the way the world is going but I understand your discomfort. Will you keep on with the series?

    1. Oh, yes, I'll still be reading because I like the characters and Leon's writing, especially her descriptions of Venice, is very good. This particular book was published in 1995 and the series is still going at 20+, so I'm interested to see how the character of Guido Brunetti develops.


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