Thursday, February 9, 2012

DEATH AND JUDGMENT by Donna Leon

In 1996, while taking an after-dinner stroll in the center of Amsterdam, I glanced at a shop window and found myself looking into the eyes of a woman for rent. I had vaguely known that women from Eastern Europe were being imported into Western European countries and forced to work as prostitutes--illegally, of course, but in great numbers--and I knew that prostitution was big business in Amsterdam. Still, I was shocked. This was a human being displayed as merchandise. Not a factoid, not a statistic, but a person. She could have been my friend, my daughter, me.

Similarly shocking is Donna Leon's fourth Venetian police procedural, Death and Judgment, published just a year before that late-evening walk. Commissario Guido Brunetti, investigating the murders of a prominent attorney and his accountant, gradually discovers a network of slave traders and pornographers bringing their human wares by the truckload into Italy. The human traffickers, he suspects, are not sleazy underworld characters but Italians of such eminence as to be virtually untouchable by the police. Brunetti, aided by a computer hacker with a secret,  systematically looks for clues--until his 14-year-old daughter, who knew the attorney's daughter, gets involved. Then the commissario, a dedicated family man, loses his cool.

I'm reading Leon's books in chronological order, and each one seems better than the one before. Brunetti, his wife Paola, and his daughter Chiara are fully developed characters that I want to stay in touch with (fortunately, I have 17 books to go). Leon's depictions of Venetian life make my mouth water, and her treatment of corruption in high Italian places, according to a friend of mine who has lived in Italy for nearly 40 years, rings entirely true. These are the kind of mysteries I most enjoy: police procedurals that are more than puzzles, thrillers that portray violence when necessary but not gratuitously, novels that feature real people who happen to be involved in law enforcement.

Be warned, however, that this is not a cozy mystery. Death and judgment are messy. You may be shocked by the human face of injustice. You may not like the way the book ends. I'm pretty sure you'll keep thinking about it, though, for some time after you've finished reading it. And then you'll probably go back for more books by Donna Leon.

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