Tuesday, April 10, 2012


This sixth installment in the Commissario Guido Brunetti series raises provocative religious and political questions. The story line leads to probability, not certainty. The context of the story - corrupt churchmen and public officials - is suggested, not offered as fact.

  • Is one of the priests in the story a killer?
  • Is another priest a child molester?
  • Did certain directives come from the Vatican - and if so, from whom?
  • Is Opus Dei a venal, murderous cult - or simply a secret society of the super-pious?
  • In a city where only 15% of the inhabitants attend church every Sunday, how do religious authorities get so much influence over political figures?

    Normally I prefer detective stories to end with the puzzle solved, the criminal(s) brought to justice, and order at least temporarily restored. I'll make an exception for Quietly in Their Sleep (whose U.K. edition is titled The Death of Faith). Maybe that's because, to skeptics like Brunetti, Paola (Brunetti's wife), Elettra (the vice-questore's personal assistant), and me, the evidence in this story for ecclesial malfeasance ranges from persuasive to conclusive.

    And maybe I resonate with this story because, although it was first published 15 years ago, it seems relevant to America's 2012 political season, with all our arguing about gay marriage and abortion and contraception and the proper role of bishops in forming public policy. These are not the issues in Quietly in Their Sleep, but our political discussions today, like the plot of this book, focus on the age-old question of just how much power religious organizations should wield in a democracy.

    I am a religious person, a semi-lapsed Catholic who goes to mass (Episcopal) every week. I believe churches do an enormous amount of good in the world. I appreciate their call to high moral standards. But churches are made up of, and ruled by, human beings, and none of us is entirely trustworthy (cf. original sin). It is good to remember that Lord Acton's famous dictum, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," referred primarily to religious power.

    After centuries of abuse from religious power-holders, a number of countries fought revolutions and established secular states - that is, political systems that kept church and state separate. America was the leader of the pack. Italy, by contrast, never completely separated religious and civil power. Quietly in Their Sleep describes what goes on when the two powers are in bed with each other. It's a fascinating detective story, not a political pamphlet, but now and then one of the characters' exasperation bursts forth. Here's Paola Brunetti, for example, arguing with her husband about the opt-out religious education their children are receiving in their public school:
    If you put people on a diet, they start thinking about food. Or, if you make someone stop smoking, all they think about is cigarettes. It seems logical enough to me that if you tell a person he can't have sex, he's going to be obsessive about the subject. Then to give him the power to tell other people how to run their sex lives, well, that's just asking for trouble.
    If you're new to Donna Leon's mysteries, you might want to check my reviews of book 3, Dressed for Death, and book 4, Death and Judgment; or just start reading book 1, Death at La Fenice. Many hours of enjoyment await you: book 21, Beastly Things, was published last week.
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