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Monday, May 16, 2011

Review: 'Drawing Conclusions'

By Donna Leon
April 2011
Crime fiction
Atlantic Monthly Press
ISBN: 978-0802119797

Commissario Guido Brunetti has seen many kinds of crimes in his long career, giving him a deep knowledge of human behavior which he can use to ascertain guilt or innocence. But in Drawing Conclusions, the 20th Brunetti novel by Donna Leon, the Venetian copper will be surprised by the people he meets and impressed by his colleagues.

The story begins with translator Anna Maria Giusti arriving home early from a weekend with her boyfriend and his closed family. She discovers the body of a neighbor. Signora Altavilla, a quiet, dignified older woman, died of a heart attack. But there is a bit of blood and a radiator nearby. Did she hit her head on the radiator? Or was she pushed into it? Are those bruises on her? What at first looked straightforward may be more complicated.

The victim had people stay with her -- only women. And she went to nursing homes to listen to old people talk. Her son once was a veterinarian to the son of Brunetti's craven boss, who expects a speedy resolution and a thorough investigation. Until he wants only the speedy resolution. And, of course, no press coverage.

According to the mother superior at the convent's spendy nursing home, Signora Altavilla had the fault of believing the truth should always be told. That, the old nun says, is a luxury.

The crux of Leon's story rests on what may or may not have happened, depending on one's point of view. Early on, one character tells another the story of a rhinoceros in a church during Medieval times. Did a rhino get into a church or not? Either it happened or it did not. But the story lives on regardless. As is noted: "People invent stories, and then after a time there's no telling what's true and what isn't."

Brunetti's wise wife, Paola, has ideas to contribute. At work, Signorina Elettra practically performs magic. Vested interests of the various characters can contribute to solving the puzzle of what happened when Signora Altavilla died or impede Brunetti, but only because the characters are concerned about themselves and not about the victim, who cared about other people and the truth. Leon adds one more layer to her theme: "Even the worst men wanted to be perceived as better than they were."

All the ideas, all the characters' separate paths, converge to show Brunetti that sometimes people tell the truth and other times, they should not. Sometimes those who tell the truth pay a very high place. Other times, those who keep secrets even while not lying to themselves about other things are made to suffer.

In keeping with her theme, the realizations characters make about the truth, what they have done with it and whether they made the right choice provide powerful revelations for the reader.

Much of Drawing Conclusions could be seen as insubstantial as meringue. But underneath is as deep and rich and even bittersweet a filling as the freshest lemon pie with fruit scraped a bit too close to the skin.

©2011 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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