Venetian Commissario Guido Brunetti and his wife, Paola, are on their way to a dinner party when Brunetti’s eye is caught by a couple ahead of them: a woman in an impossibly expensive fur coat on the arm of a much older man. He is intrigued when they turn out to be fellow dinner guests, and even more so when he sees the woman’s face, which has been disfigured by excessive plastic surgery. She is Franca Marinello, La Superliftata, whom he’s heard of but never met. This intelligent, mysterious woman entrances Brunetti with her love of Virgil and Cicero, but when she visits him later at the Questura and asks a favor, he is troubled. Her request seems to land near his investigation into a suspicious death and the illegal hauling of garbage. In Italy, the environment has reached a crisis; incinerators across the south are at full capacity, burning who-knows-what, the polluted waters of Venice’s canals sit in the shadow of a major chemical complex, and in Naples, enormous piles of garbage grow in the streets. As Brunetti delves into this shadowy, toxic world, he comes face to face with violence and corruption more dangerous than anything he’s seen before. An exceptional installment in this masterful series, About Face is Donna Leon at her finest.
About the Author
Donna Leon is the author of the highly acclaimed, internationally bestselling Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery series. The winner of the CWA Macallan Silver Dagger for Fiction, among other awards, Donna Leon lived in Venice for many years and now divides her time between Venice and Switzerland.
Date of Birth:February 28, 1942
Place of Birth:Montclair, New Jersey
Education:B.A., 1964; M.A. 1969; postgraduate work in English literature
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He noticed the woman on their way to dinner. That is, as he and Paola paused in front of the window of a bookstore, and he was using the reflection to adjust his tie, Brunetti saw the woman's reflection as she passed by, heading towards Campo San Barnaba arm in arm with an older man. He saw her from behind, the man on her left. Brunetti first noticed her hair, a blonde as light as Paola's, braided into a smooth bun that sat low on the back of her head. By the time he turned around to get a better look, the couple had passed them and was nearing the bridge that led to San Barnaba.
Her coat – it might have been ermine, it might have been sable: Brunetti knew only that it was something more expensive than mink – fell to just above very fine ankles and shoes with a heel too high, really, to be worn on streets where patches of snow and ice still lay.
Brunetti recognized the man but failed to recall his name: the impression that came was the vague memory of wealth and importance. He was shorter and broader than the woman and he was more careful about avoiding the patches of ice. At the bottom of the bridge, the man took a sudden sidestep and braced his hand on the parapet. He stopped, and the woman's momentum was arrested by the anchor of his arm. One foot still in the air, she began to pivot in the direction of the now motionless man and swung farther away from the still-curious Brunetti.
'If you felt like it, Guido,' Paola said from beside him, 'you could get me the new biography of William James for my birthday.'
Brunetti looked away from the couple and followed the direction of his wife's finger towards a thick book at the back of the window display.
'I thought his name was Henry,' he said, straight faced.
She yanked at his arm, pulling him closer. 'Don't play the fool with me, Guido Brunetti. You know who William James is.'
He nodded. 'But why do you want a biography of the brother?'
'I'm curious about the family and about anything that might have made him the way he was.'
Brunetti remembered that, more than two decades before, he had felt the same urgency about the newly met Paola: inquisitive about her family, her tastes, her friends, anything at all that could tell him more about this wondrous young woman whom some beneficent agency of fate had allowed him to bump into among the shelves of the university library. To Brunetti, this curiosity seemed a normal enough response to a warm and living person. But to feel it about a writer who had been dead for almost a century?
'Why do you find him so fascinating?' he asked, not for the first time. Hearing himself, Brunetti realized he sounded just like what her enthusiasm for Henry James had so often reduced him to being: a petulant, jealous husband.
She released his arm and stepped back, as if to get a better look at this man she found herself married to. 'Because he understands things,' she said.
'Ah,' Brunetti contented himself with saying. It seemed to him that this was the least that could be expected of a writer.
'And because he makes us understand those things,' she added.
He now suspected that the subject had been closed.
Paola must have decided they had spent more than enough time on this. 'Come on. You know my father hates people to be late,' she said.
They moved away from the bookstore. When they reached the bottom of the bridge, she stopped and glanced up at his face. 'You know,' she began. 'You're really very much like Henry James.'
Brunetti did not know whether to be flattered or offended. Over the years, fortunately, he had at least ceased to wonder, upon hearing the comparison, whether he needed to reconsider the foundations of their marriage.
'You want to understand things, Guido. It's probably why you're a policeman.' She looked thoughtful after saying this. 'But you also want other people to understand those things.' She turned away and continued up the bridge. Over her shoulder, she added, 'Just as he did.'
Brunetti allowed her to reach the top of the bridge before calling after her, 'Does that mean I'm really meant to be a writer, too?' How nice it would be if she answered yes.
She dismissed the idea with a wave of her hand, then turned to say, 'It makes you interesting to live with, though.'
Better than being a writer, Brunetti thought as he followed after her.
Brunetti glanced at his watch as Paola reached up to ring the bell beside the portone of her parents' home. 'All these years, and you don't have a key?' he asked.
'Don't be a goose,' she said. 'Of course I have a key. But this is formal, so it's better to arrive like guests.'
'Does that mean we have to behave like guests?' Brunetti asked.
Whatever answer Paola might have given was cut off as the door was opened by a man neither of them recognized. He smiled and pulled the door fully open.
Paola thanked him and they started across the courtyard towards the steps that led to the palazzo. 'No livery,' Brunetti said in a shocked whisper. 'No periwigs? My God, what's the world coming to? Next thing you know, the servants will be eating at the high table, and then the silver will start to disappear. Where will it all end? With Luciana running after your father with a meat cleaver?'
Paola stopped in her tracks and turned to him, silent. She gave him a variation on the Look, her only recourse in his moments of verbal excess.
'Sì, tesoro?' he asked in his sweetest voice.
'Let's stand here for a few moments, Guido, while you use up all of your humorous remarks about my parents' place in society, and when you've calmed down, we'll go upstairs and join the other guests, and you will behave like a reasonably civilized person at dinner. How does that sound to you?'
Brunetti nodded. 'I like it, especially the part about "reasonably civilized".'
Her smile was radiant, 'I thought you would, dear.' She started up the steps to the entrance to the main part of the palazzo, Brunetti one step behind.
Paola had accepted her father's invitation some time before and explained to Brunetti that Conte Falier had said he wanted his son-in-law to meet a good friend of the Contessa.
Though Brunetti had come, over the years, to accept without question his mother-in-law's love, he was never sure of just where he stood in the Conte's estimation, whether he was viewed as a jumped-up peasant who had stolen in and made off with the affections of the Conte's only child or a person of worth and ability. Brunetti accepted the fact that the Conte was entirely capable of believing both things simultaneously.
Another man whom neither of them recognized stood at the top of the steps and opened the door to the palazzo with a small bow, allowing its warmth to spill out towards them. Brunetti followed Paola inside.
The sound of voices came down the corridor from the main salone that looked across the Grand Canal. The man took their coats silently and opened the door of an illuminated closet. Glancing inside, Brunetti saw a single, long fur coat hanging by itself at the end of one of the racks, isolated either by its value or by the sensibilities of the man who had hung it there.
The voices lured them, and they started towards the front of the house. As Brunetti and Paola entered, he saw their host and hostess standing in front of the centre window. They were facing towards Brunetti and Paola, allowing their guests the view to the palazzi on the other side of the Grand Canal, and Brunetti, once again seeing their backs, recognized them as the man and woman who had passed them on the street; either that, or there existed another thickset, white-haired man who had a tall blonde companion with black stiletto-heeled shoes and hair pulled back into an elaborately woven bun. She stood a bit apart, gazing out the window and appearing from this distance not to be engaging with the others.
Two other couples stood on either side of his parents-in-law. He recognized the Conte's lawyer and his wife; the others were an old friend of the Contessa's who, like her, engaged in good works, and her husband, who sold armaments and mining technology to Third World countries.
The Conte glanced aside from what looked like a flourishing conversation with the white-haired man and saw his daughter. He set his glass down, said something else to the man, and stepped around him to come towards Paola and Brunetti. As his host moved away, the man turned to see what had drawn his attention, and the name came to Brunetti: Maurizio Cataldo, a man said to have the ear of certain members of the city administration. The woman continued to look out of the window, as if enchanted by the view and unaware of the Conte's departure.
Brunetti and Cataldo, as often happened in the city, had never been introduced to one another, though Brunetti knew the general outline of his history. The family had come from Friuli, Brunetti thought, some time early in the last century, had prospered during the Fascist era, and had become even richer during the great boom of the sixties. Construction? Transport? He wasn't sure.
The Conte reached Brunetti and Paola, kissed them each twice in greeting, and then turned back to the couple with whom he had been talking, saying, 'Paola, you know them,' and then to Brunetti, 'but I'm not sure you do, Guido. They're eager to meet you.'
This was perhaps true of Cataldo, who watched them approach, eyebrows raised and chin tilted to one side as he cast his eyes from Paola to Brunetti with open curiosity. As for the woman, her expression was impossible to read. Or more accurately, her face expressed pleasant, permanent anticipation, fixed there immutably by the attentions of a surgeon. Her mouth was set to spend the rest of its time on earth parted in a small smile, the sort one gives when introduced to the maid's grandchild. Though the smile was thin as an expression of pleasure, the lips that made it were full and fleshy, a deep red most usually seen on cherries. Her eyes were crowded by her cheekbones, which swelled up on either side of her nose in taut, pink nodes about the size of a kiwi fruit cut longitudinally. The nose itself started higher on her forehead than it was normal for noses to start and was strangely flat, as though someone had smoothed it with a spatula after placing it there.
Of line or blemish there was no sign. Her skin was perfect, the skin of a child. The blonde hair gave no sign that it differed from spun gold, and Brunetti had learned enough about fashion to know that her dress cost more than any suit he had ever owned.
This, then, must be Cataldo's second wife, 'la super liftata', some distant relative of the Contessa about whom Brunetti had heard a few times but whom he had never met. A quick search through his file of social gossip told him that she was from the North somewhere and was said to be reclusive and, in some never explained way, strange.
'Ah,' the Conte began, breaking into Brunetti's thoughts. Paola bent forward and kissed the woman, then shook the man's hand. To the woman, the Conte said, 'Franca, I'd like you to meet my son-in-law, Guido Brunetti, Paola's husband.' And then to Brunetti, 'Guido, may I present Franca Marinello and her husband, Maurizio Cataldo.' He stepped aside and waved Brunetti forward, as though he were offering Brunetti and Paola the other couple as a Christmas gift.
Brunetti shook hands with the woman, whose grasp was surprisingly firm, and the man, whose hand felt dry, as if it needed dusting. 'Piacere,' he said, smiling first into her eyes, and then into the man's, which were a watery blue.
The man nodded, but it was the woman who spoke. 'Your mother-in-law has spoken so well of you all these years; it's a great pleasure finally to meet you.'
Before Brunetti could think of a response, the double doors leading to the dining room were opened from inside, and the man who had collected the coats announced that dinner was served. As everyone made their way across the room, Brunetti tried to remember anything the Contessa might have told him about her friend Franca, but he could summon only that the Contessa had befriended her years ago when she came to study in Venice.
The sight of the table, laden with china and silver, exploding with flowers, reminded him of the last meal he had had in this house, only two weeks before. He had stopped by to bring two books to the Contessa, with whom, in the last years, he had begun to exchange them, and he had found his son there with her. Raffi had explained that he had come to pick up the essay he had prepared for his Italian class and which his grandmother had offered to read.
Brunetti had found them in her study, sitting side by side at her desk. In front of them were the eight pages of Raffi's essay, spread out and covered with comments in three different colours. To the left of the papers was a platter of sandwiches, or rather what had once been a platter of sandwiches. While Brunetti finished them, the Contessa explained her system: red for grammatical errors; yellow for any form of the verb essere, and blue for errors of fact or interpretation.
Raffi, who sometimes bridled when Brunetti disagreed with his view of history or Paola corrected his grammar, seemed entirely persuaded that his grandmother knew whereof she wrote and was busy entering her suggestions into his laptop; Brunetti listened attentively as she explained them.
Brunetti was pulled back from this memory by Paola's muttered, 'Look for your name.' Indeed, small hand-printed cards stood propped in front of each place. He quickly found his own and was comforted to see Paola's to his left, between himself and her father. He glanced around the table, where everyone seemed to have found his or her proper place. Someone more familiar with the etiquette of seating at dinner might have been shocked at the proximity of wives to their husbands: it is to be hoped that their sensibilities would have been calmed by the fact that the Conte and Contessa faced one another from the ends of the rectangular table. The Conte's lawyer, Renato Rocchetto, pulled out the Contessa's chair and held it for her. When she was seated, the other women took their places, followed by the men.
Brunetti found himself directly opposite Cataldo's wife, about a metre from her face. She was listening to something her husband said, her head almost touching his, but Brunetti knew that would merely delay the inevitable. Paola turned to him, whispered 'Coraggio', and patted his leg.
As Paola took her hand away, Cataldo smiled at his wife and turned towards Paola and her father; Franca Marinello looked across at Brunetti. 'It's terribly cold, isn't it?' she began, and Brunetti braced himself for yet another one of those dinner conversations.
Before he could find a suitably bland answer, the Contessa spoke from her end of the table: 'I hope no one will mind if we have a meatless dinner this evening.' She smiled and looked around at the guests and added, in a tone that suggested both amusement and embarrassment, 'What with the dietary peculiarities of my own family and because I let it go until too late to call each of you to ask about yours, I decided it would be easiest simply to avoid meat and fish.'
'"Dietary peculiarities?"' whispered Claudia Umberti, the wife of the Conte's lawyer. She sounded honestly puzzled, and Brunetti, who sat beside her, had seen her and her husband at enough family dinners to know she understood that the only dietary peculiarity of the extended Falier family – Chiara's off and on vegetarianism aside – was an insistence on ample portions and rich desserts.
No doubt wanting to save her mother the awkwardness of being caught in an open lie, Paola spoke into the general silence to explain, 'I prefer not to eat beef; my daughter Chiara won't eat meat or fish – at least not this week; Raffi won't eat anything green and doesn't like cheese; and Guido,' she said, leaning towards him and placing a hand on his arm, 'won't eat anything unless he gets a large portion.'
Everyone at the table obliged with gentle laughter, and Brunetti kissed Paola's cheek as a sign of good humour and sportsmanship, vowing at the same time to refuse any offer that might be made of a second helping. He turned to her and, still smiling, asked, 'What was that all about?' 'I'll tell you later,' she said and turned away to ask a polite question of her father.
Apparently having decided not to comment on the Contessa's remarks, Franca Marinello said, when Brunetti's attention returned to her, 'The snow on the street's a terrible problem.' Brunetti smiled, quite as if he had neither noticed her shoes nor been listening to that same remark for the last two days.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "About Face"
Copyright © 2009 Donna Leon and Diogenes Verlag AG, Zurich.
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