Friday, April 24, 2020

Trace Elements by Donna Leon

First Sentence:  A man and a woman deep in conversation approached the steps of Pone dei Lustraferi, both looking hot and uncomfortable on this late July afternoon.

Benedetta Toso, a dying hospice patient who asks to speak with the police, claims her husband, Vittorio Fadalto, was murdered over “bad money.” Commissario Brunetti and his colleague, Claudia Griffoni, promise to investigate the matter, but was it murder or an accident? Suspicions mount as they learn more about Vittorio's job collecting samples of water to be tested for contamination. Piecing together the tangled threads, Brunetti comes to realize the perilous meaning in the woman’s accusation and the threat it reveals to the health of the entire region.

With an excellent beginning, one learns that being a Neapolitan in Venice is a "far greater handicap than being a woman."—and that one may not want to visit Venice during the summer.  Leon's voice is always a pleasure. When talking about the heat, she conveys the sense of it without referencing it directly --"Brunetti realized only then how hot he was.  He tried to lift his right leg, but it was glued to the chair by sweat." It is these touches that bring Venice to life by allowing us to see the city as those who live there do.

There is a second plot thread of two Romany pickpockets.  It is interesting to learn the differences between how crimes are handled in Italy versus the United States. The secondary plot does raise interesting points.

Leon's descriptions, from the route to an address Brunetti takes that only a resident would know, to his description of a room badly decorated, to food, are a delight and bring the city to life. Even a plate of sandwiches at a bar sound good--"From the sides of the sandwiches spilled ham, egg tomato, tuna salad, radicchio, rucola, shrimp, artichokes, asparagus, and olives."   

Leon is wonderful at injecting verbal exchanges to make one chuckle. When called into his boss's office, Signorina Elettra remarks--"If you aren't out in fifteen minutes, I'll call the police." However, she is also very good at making one pause and consider, as with Bruno's conversation with a nurse--"But if you work with death, you have to become spiritual, or you can't do it any more. ... when they get close to the end, you can sense their spirit, or you sense that it's there.  They do, too.  And it helps them.  And us." She knows how to touch one's emotions-- "Griffoni…raised a hand and threw open her palm, as if to release the dead woman's spirit into the air. The three of them remained silent for enough time to allow that spirit to escape the room..."   

 There is something wonderful about a policeman who reads Lysistrata for pleasure and describes Agamemnon as a "windbag commander." The relationship between Brunetti and his wife Paoli adds normality. It is one of a couple who has been married a long time and still loves one another. An interesting characteristic of Leon is that when her characters are in a professional setting, she references them by their surnames, yet when in a personal setting, or amongst one another as friends, she uses their first names.

Leon is incredibly good at building a story. She takes one along with her through the steps with an amazing subtlety to the clues.

"Trace Elements" is a police procedural without car chases or gunplay, but with a somewhat political theme. It is a very contemporary mystery with a contemporary crime. It reflects on the degradation of true justice in our time and on compromise. For some, the ending may not seem satisfactory, but upon reflection, there is some small justice amidst justice that cannot be achieved.

TRACE ELEMENTS (PolProc-Comm. Guido Brunetti-Venice-Contemp) - VG
      Leon, Donna – 29th in series
      Atlantic Monthly - Mar 2020

Monday, April 20, 2020

No Fixed Line by Dana Stabenow

First Sentence:  Anna was a warm, heavy weight against his side, her eyes closed, her breathing deep, her tears drying in faint silvery streaks on her cheeks

Matt Grosdidier and Laurel Meganack are spending New Year’s' Eve at Kate Shugak's cabin bolt hole at Canyon Hot Springs. Their romantic interlude is interrupted by the sound of an engine, and the crash of a plane. What they didn't expect to find was two young children, buried in the snow, and a whole lot of drugs.  Meanwhile, Erland Bannister, who had tried to have Kate killed more than once, has died. But why did he made her the trustee of his estate and the head of his foundation?

Stabenow captures one's interest from the very first sentence. Her writing is evocative and visual.  It captivates, involves, and becomes real.  And it moves, no long narratives here; just writing which keeps one turning the page.  One also realizes just how timely are the themes of her story.   But it's the details of dealing with Alaska that make one’s eyes widen.  For those who follow the series, this is an Alaska very different from the state as it was in the beginning, which only adds to the interest.

The story is perfectly balanced between the action, the pastoral, and the wonderfully normal, human moments.  The transition between these elements segues perfectly, one to the next.  It's fascinating to see how Kate's mind works; how she walks through the possible scenarios of traps Bannister may have set for her. Her comparison of a modern minimalist office lobby, using the term "dead perfection" from a Tennyson poem and comparing it to a columbarium is identifiable.

One can't but love the references to other writers: Dick Francis, Ellis Peters, Damien Boyd, Adrian McGinty, John Sandford, and even Tennyson.  Such things make the character seem real--"To quote the late, great Dick Francis, life keeps getting steadily weirder."—along with references to food--"...caribou steak with loaded baked potatoes and canned green beans fried with bacon and onions."

Stabenow weaves the issues of poverty, drugs and government cutbacks seamlessly into the story through the conversations of the characters. She offsets that by observing the way people in the park care for one another.  The plot meanders a bit between the characters and the mystery involving the children, but doesn't life?  There is romance and a bit of erotic heat, but it then stops before becoming too graphic.  Quite satisfying is Kate's justifiable anger at law enforcement not having gone after someone they knew was a criminal.  Valid and significant points are made about the status of things without being preachy, and the suggestion of a future threat is intriguing without being an end-destroying cliffhanger.

"No Fixed Line” is a great pleasure to read.  It has everything a really good book should: well-developed characters, a compelling plot that keeps one turning the pages, excellent dialogue, a touch of humor, well-done suspense, well-placed twists, and a perfectly-executed ending.  Thank you, Dana Stabenow.

NO FIXED LINE (PI/Susp-Kate Shugak/Jim Chopin-Alaska-Contemp) - Ex
Stabenow, Dana – 22nd in series
Head of Zeus. Jan 2020