Book Review: Beastly Things by Donna Leon

Beastly Things
Donna Leon
Atlantic Monthly Press, April 2012
ISBN 978-0-8021-2023-6

From the publisher—

When the body of a man is found in a canal, damaged by the tides, carrying no wallet, and wearing only one shoe, Brunetti has little to work with. No local has filed a missing-person report, and no hotel guests have disappeared. Where was the crime scene? And how can Brunetti identify the man when he can’t show pictures of his face? The autopsy shows a way forward: it turns out the man was suffering from a rare, disfiguring disease. With Inspector Vianello, Brunetti canvasses shoe stores, and winds up on the mainland in Mestre, outside of his usual sphere. From a shopkeeper, they learn that the man had a kindly way with animals.

At the same time, animal rights and meat consumption are quickly becoming preoccupying issues at the Venice Questura, and in Brunetti’s home, where conversation at family meals offer a window into the joys and conflicts of Italian life. Perhaps with the help of Signorina Elettra, Brunetti and Vianello can identify the man and understand why someone wanted him dead.

Venetian detective Guido Brunetti is faced with a baffling case when a man with no identifying papers is found in the water but, with his usual cleverness and doggedness, he follows the few clues he has to put a name to the body. That turns out to be the easy part of solving this particular crime and finding out why he was murdered will lead to a far more extensive and alarming ongoing crime, one Brunetti may not be able to stop.

Beastly Things has some positive things going for it, primarily being able to spend more time with our beloved Commissario Guido Brunetti, his family and his colleagues Signorina Elettra and Inspector Lorenzo Vianello, but it ranks as one of my least favorite books in the series. It seems much shorter than previous titles with short chapters and a lot of white space and I was disturbed by the attention devoted to a topic that’s related to the mystery but given more importance.

I’ve been a big fan of Brunetti for years but this entry in the series has left me unsatisfied and a bit disturbed. Ms. Leon is known for addressing social issues of all kinds within the storylines but, this time, I felt the crime solving and the always-enjoyable family scenes were overshadowed by the agenda du jour, telling the reader what horrible things happen in the meat industry and, essentially, that we should all become vegetarians. I realize the books are set in Italy and that standards for treatment of the animals may not be the same as in the US but, all in all, I felt as though PETA’s objectives were the reason for this particular book. Yes, I’m a meat-eater and, yes, I know animals have to be killed for me to have that meat but the expose drawn by the author is too much. Chapter 19 should have a warning to the unsuspecting reader as it’s completely over the top and I almost stopped reading the book because of it. Also, when the reader is not being bombarded with this particular crusade, political corruption seems to be the fall-back position. The two themes become tiresome, topics to be endured in order to get back to the mystery that is meant to be the central story.

In the end, and I mean the end of the book, the magic that is the author’s writing talent returns with her description of the murder victim’s funeral service and she had me in tears as she so often does. Will I read the next book in the series? Yes, because Ms. Leon is such a gifted writer and the crime-solving is always good. I just hope that, in the future, the author will take a less-determined approach to saving the world and devote more time and energy to Brunetti and his activities.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2012.