Through A Glass Darkly, by Donna Leon

Operatic brilliance of a dark Venice mired in murder and eco-crime
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The Independent Culture

What's her secret? While other writers of detective series show signs of exhaustion (usually manifested by the detectives falling prey to a series of tics and character flaws, endlessly repeated), Donna Leon appears to have the knack of keeping her Venice-set Commissario Brunetti books as fresh as paint.

She leads the reader into new and intriguing corners of La Serenissima, evoked with the assurance of Venetian chroniclers from Canaletto to Nicholas Roeg - whose sinister, death-drenched city in Don't Look Now is an avatar of Leon's books.

As this might suggest, Leon may not be on the mayor's Christmas-card list, as the municipal corruption and double-dealing into which she plunges Brunetti often stretches up to the highest echelons. Leon is an expat living in Venice - an American academic who has made the city her home, taking on board both the beauty and the worm in the bud.

Like her detective, Leon is riled about the levels of corruption that Italians customarily expect from their politicians, but she loves this country with a passion that borders on obsession. Through a Glass Darkly, like all her work, has the exuberance of a Puccini opera. (Leon is a great opera buff, and dedicates the novel to soprano Cecilia Bartoli, a friend of hers.) The title turns out to be a pun - and a surprisingly obvious one, given the author's misdirection of the reader.

On a bright spring day in Venice, Guido Brunetti and his associate Vianello help the latter's friend Marco, who is under arrest after an environmental protest. After Marco's release, he is attacked by his splenetically angry father-in-law, owner of a glass factory (hence the title). Marco's wife believes that the old man may actually kill him for his eco-friendly views - which Brunetti comes to share. But then a corpse is found by the furnaces of the glass foundries, and cryptic clues found in a copy of Dante's La Divina Commedia point Brunetti towards the clandestine figure who is polluting the Venetian lagoon.

Although the themes that Leon juggles here are not new, there is a freshly energised passion in Leon's and Brunetti's reaction to the ecological threat. One can't help wondering if the rage at the Italian dumping of toxic waste is a metaphor for the author's own irritation with her native United States, an eco-polluter on a scale that makes Signor Berlusconi's similar abuses seem like small beer.

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