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


  1. Wow! I get the impression from this review that this is a compelling book. I'll look it up and put it on my to read list. Thank you for drawing our attention to it.

    1. Thanks, Wendy. I wouldn't say this was her best book, but she never writes a bad book.

  2. This is such an excellent series, isn't it? And although some are, in my opinion, better than others, it's consistently good. Glad you enjoyed this one.

    1. It is, and I always gain something from her books.