About Face, By Donna Leon

Reviewed,Rebecca Armstrong@RebeccaJ
Thursday 14 November 2013 05:38

The very first sentences of About Face showcase Donna Leon's elegant, effortless style. She captures the mesmerising effect of a cool blonde in high heels and expensive fur coat, glimpsed on an icy evening, in a handful of simple lines. It's Commissario Guido Brunetti who is captivated by this fair stranger who, it transpires, is at the heart of Leon's 18th novel to feature the Venetian policeman.

At a dinner party held by his in-laws, the Conte and Contessa Falier, Brunetti meets Franca Marinella, the woman who caught his eye. At first shocked by her appearance - the result, it seems, of an ill-conceived face-lift, which is described in such a way as to seem almost impossible ("her cheekbones...[were] taut, pink nodes the size of a kiwi fruit") - the Commissario is even more surprised when Marinella reveals her knowledge of Cicero and Virgil.

The Conte asks Brunetti to look into the business affairs of Marinella's husband with a view to doing business with him. Meanwhile, a visit from an out-of-town Carabinieri, one Maggior Filippo Guarino, sets Brunetti on a trail that leads him through the dirty business of Italy's waste disposal trade and the Camorra's increasing involvement in it.

What follows is a discourse on business opportunities in China, corruption Italian-style and the dangerous world of refuse collection, with a passing study of the unglamorous reality of gambling thrown in. It's testament to Leon's skill as a storyteller that these disparate elements blend into yet another great Brunetti outing. She combines the minutiae of daily life in Venice with pitch-perfect descriptions of police procedure, the now-familiar rhythms of Brunetti's home life with a ferocious knowledge of literature, delivered - how else? - with a sure, yet light, touch.

As Brunetti ponders the mysteries of Signora Marinella, we are given a guided tour of the unlovely side of La Serenissima, where heavy industry, and its handmaiden pollution, are just as much a part of the landscape as islands and canals. When Guarino is found dead, the victim of what is made to look like a random robbery, Brunetti is drawn into a world where trafficking toxic waste to developing countries is seen as a business opportunity and appearances are always deceptive.

But against this backdrop of villainy in Venice, there are smaller-scale developments in Brunetti's life. He realises how fond he has grown of his father-in-law, despite the older man's ruthless money-making ways, meditates on his love for his wife, Paola, and ponders the other man in her life, one Henry James. The details of home-cooked meals and family arguments, alongside a never-ending flow of crime, add a depth to Leon's stories and are what makes her characters so believable and, in turn, her books so readable.

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