Early one spring morning, a misshapen body – hugely barrel-chested and with a neck as thick as his head – is dragged from a canal. The man has been stabbed in the back. The pathologist identifies his condition as Madelung's disease, but no one can identify the man himself.
Donna Leon's hero, Commissario Guido Brunetti, is one of the most attractive serial detectives of contemporary fiction. A good man, he is only too aware of the possibilities of corruption all around him. Generally, his office is concerned with such comparatively petty offences as illegal clam-dredging in the Venetian lagoon: murders are uncommon. But when he discovers that the murdered man was a vet, who was very unhappy about the work he had recently undertaken at a huge slaughterhouse on the mainland, a crime potentially far more serious even than murder is painstakingly revealed.
The unravelling of this intricate plot is very satisfying, yet the real pleasure of this novel lies in its evocation of a city whose shimmering beauty is set against the encroaching predations of the Mafia; a city where proper jobs are so rare that most young adults live at home with their parents, studying or wasting time; a place where your only real safety comes from having, say, four Doges in your ancestry, or a father with such powerful influence that nobody dares cross him.
Even in the police station, the wondrous "researcher" Signorina Elettra probably produces her detailed results by means of dubious phone tapping (uneasily, nobody enquires) while at the University where Brunetti's wife Paola teaches depressingly venal students about Henry James, a well-connected crook is somehow managing to run a course in "The Semiotics of Ethics". Paola, as clever as her husband, puts paid to this chap's ambitions – and still manages to produce regular and fabulous-sounding meals for her grateful family. What a woman!
The superb reader, Andrew Sachs, has become the voice of Brunetti: intelligent, thoughtful, weary and worldly wise. When the policeman relaxes at night, we can almost taste the cold Pinot Grigio that he sips on his balcony, and when he pays a visit to the sickening, stinking, blood-boltered horrors of the slaughterhouse, we are led right down into the seventh circle of Dante's Hell. Brunetti might never become a vegetarian but, on that day at least, his lunch is a cheese-and-tomato sandwich.