It’s no wonder that Donna Leon’s latest mystery debuted on the New York Times bestseller list at number ten. The series’s tantalizing crimes, Venetian setting, and much-loved commissario are a winning combination that continues to earn critical acclaim and a growing readership around the globe.
In Beastly Things, Leon lives up to her reputation as a writer unafraid to address the corruption underlying La Serenissima’s outward beauty. When an unidentified murder victim winds up in a canal, Brunetti travels beyond his usual sphere to find the connection between the dead man and a local slaughterhouse.
About the Author
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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The man lay still, as still as a piece of meat on a slab, as still as death itself. Though the room was cold, his only covering was a thin cotton sheet that left his head and neck free. From a distance, his chest rose inordinately high, as though some sort of support had been wedged under his back, running the length of it. If this white form were a snow-covered mountain ridge and the viewer a tired hiker at the end of a long day, faced with the task of crossing it, the hiker would surely choose to walk along the entire length of the man to cross at the ankles and not the chest. The ascent was too high and too steep, and who knew what difficulties there would be descending the other side?
From the side, the unnatural height of the chest was obvious; from above – if the hiker were now placed on a peak and could gaze down at the man – it was the neck that was conspicuous. The neck – or perhaps more accurately the lack of one. In fact, his neck was a broad column running down straight from beneath his ears to his shoulders. There was no narrowing, no indentation; the neck was as wide as the head.
Also conspicuous was the nose, now barely evident in profile. It had been crushed and pushed to one side; scratches and tiny indentations patterned the skin. The right cheek, as well, was scratched and bruised. His entire face was swollen, the skin white and flaccid. From above, his flesh sank in a concave arc below his cheekbones. His face was pale with more than the pallor of death. This was a man who had lived indoors.
The man had dark hair and a short beard, grown perhaps in an attempt to disguise the neck, but there was no disguising such a thing for more than a second. The beard provided a visual distraction, but almost instantly it would be seen as camouflage, nothing more, for it ran along the jaw line and down that column of a neck, as if it did not know where to stop. From this height, it looked almost as though it had flowed down across the neck and off to the sides, an effect exaggerated by the way the beard grew increasingly white at the sides.
His ears were surprisingly delicate, almost feminine. Earrings would not have looked out of place there, were it not for the beard. Below the left ear, just beyond the end of the beard and set at a thirty-degree angle, was a pink scar. About three centimetres long, it was as wide as a pencil; the skin was rough, as though whoever had sewn the skin shut had been in a hurry or careless because he was a man, and a scar was nothing for a man to worry about.
It was cold in the room, the only sound the heavy wheeze of the air conditioning. The man's thick chest did not move up and down, nor did he stir uncomfortably in the cold. He lay there, naked under his sheet, eyes closed. He did not wait, for he was beyond waiting, just as he was beyond being late or being on time. One might be tempted to say that the man simply was. But that would be untrue, for he was no more.
Two other forms lay, similarly covered, in the room, though they were closer to the walls: the bearded man was in the centre. If a man who always lies tells someone he is a liar, is he telling the truth? If no one is alive in a room, is the room empty?
A door was opened on the far side and held open by a tall, thin man in a white lab jacket. He stood there long enough for another man to pass in front of him and enter the room. The first man released the door; it closed slowly, giving a quiet, almost liquid click that sounded loud in the cold room.
'He's over there, Guido,' Dottor Rizzardi said, coming up behind Guido Brunetti, Commissario di Polizia of the city of Venice. Brunetti stopped, in the manner of the hiker, and looked across at the white-covered ridge of the man. Rizzardi walked past him to the slab on which the dead man lay.
'He was stabbed in the lower back three times with a very thin blade. Less than two centimetres wide, I'd say, and whoever did it was very good or very lucky. There are two small bruises on the front of his left arm,' Rizzardi said, stopping beside the body. 'And water in his lungs,' he added. 'So he was alive when he went into the water. But the killer got a major vein: he didn't have a chance. He bled to death in minutes.' Then, grimly, Rizzardi added, 'Before he could drown.' Before Brunetti could ask, the pathologist said, 'It happened last night, some time after midnight, I'd say. Because he's been in the water, that's as close as I can come.'
Brunetti remained halfway to the table, his eyes going back and forth between the dead man and the pathologist. 'What happened to his face?' Brunetti asked, aware of how difficult it would be to recognize a photo of him; indeed, how difficult it would be even to look at a photo of that broken, swollen face.
'My guess is that he fell forward when he was stabbed. He was probably too stunned to put out his hands to break his fall.'
'Could you take a photo?' Brunetti asked, wondering if Rizzardi could disguise some of the damage.
'You want to ask people to look at it?' It was not an answer Brunetti liked, but it was an answer. Then, after a moment, the pathologist said, 'I'll do what I can.'
Brunetti asked, 'What else?'
'I'd say he's in his late forties, in reasonably good health, isn't someone who works with his hands, but I can't say more than that.'
'Why is he such an odd shape?' Brunetti asked as he approached the table.
'You mean his chest?' Rizzardi asked.
'And the neck,' Brunetti added, his eyes drawn to its thickness.
'It's something called Madelung's disease,' Rizzardi said. 'I've read about it, and I remember it from med school, but I've never seen it before. Only the photos.'
'What causes it?' Brunetti asked, coming to stand beside the dead man.
Rizzardi shrugged. 'Who knows?' As if he'd himself just heard a doctor saying such a thing, he quickly added, 'There's a common link to alcoholism, sometimes drug use, though not in his case. He wasn't a drinker, not at all, and I didn't see signs of drug use.' He paused, then went on, 'Most alcoholics don't get it, thank God, but most of the men who get it – and it's almost always men – arealcoholics. No one seems to understand why it happens.'
Stepping closer to the corpse, Rizzardi pointed to the neck, which was especially thick at the back, where Brunetti could see what appeared to be a small hump. Before he could ask about it, Rizzardi continued, 'It's fat. It accumulates here,' he said, pointing to the hump. 'And here.' He indicated what looked like breasts under the white cloth, in the place where they would be on the body of a woman.
'It starts when they're in their thirties or forties, concentrates on the top part of the body.'
'You mean it just grows?' Brunetti asked, trying to imagine such a thing.
'Yes. Sometimes on the top part of the legs, too. But in his case it's only the neck and chest.' He paused in thought for a moment and then added, 'It turns them into barrels, poor devils.'
'Is it common?' Brunetti asked.
'No, not at all. I think there's only a few hundred cases in the literature.' He shrugged. 'We really don't know very much.'
'He was dragged along a rough surface,' the pathologist said, leading Brunetti to the bottom of the table and lifting the sheet. He pointed to the back of the dead man's heel, where the skin was scratched and broken. 'There's evidence on his lower back, as well.'
'Of what?' Brunetti asked.
'Someone grabbed him under the shoulders and dragged him across a floor, I'd say. There's no gravel in the wound,' he said, 'so it was probably a stone floor.' To clarify things, Rizzardi added, 'He was wearing only one shoe, a loafer. That suggests the other one was pulled off.'
Brunetti took a few steps back to the man's head and looked down at the bearded face. 'Does he have light eyes?' he asked
Rizzardi glanced at him, his surprise evident. 'Blue. How did you know?'
'I didn't,' Brunetti answered.
'Then why did you ask?'
'I think I've seen him somewhere,' Brunetti answered. He stared at the man, his face, the beard, the broad column of his neck. But memory failed him, beyond his certainty about the eyes.
'If you did see him, you'd be likely to remember him, wouldn't you?' The man's body was sufficient answer to Rizzardi's question.
Brunetti nodded. 'I know, but if I think about him, nothing's there.' His failure to remember something as exceptional as this man's appearance bothered Brunetti more than he wanted to admit. Had he seen a photo, a mug shot, or had it been a print in something he'd read? He'd leafed through Lombroso's vile book a few years ago: did this man do nothing more than remind him of one of those carriers of 'hereditary criminality'?
But the Lombroso prints had been in black and white; would eyes have shown up as light or dark? Brunetti searched for the image his memory must have held, stared at the opposite wall to try to aid it. But nothing came, no clear image of a blue-eyed man, neither this one nor any other.
Instead, his memory filled almost to suffocation with the unsummoned picture of his mother, slumped in her chair, staring at him with vacant eyes that failed to know him.
'Guido?' he heard someone say and turned to see the familiar face of Rizzardi.
'You all right?'
Brunetti forced a smile and said, 'Yes. I was just trying to remember where I might have seen him.'
'Leave it alone for a while and it might come back,' Rizzardi suggested. 'Happens to me all the time. I can't remember someone's name, and I start through the alphabet – A, B, C – and often when I get to the first letter of their name, it comes back to me.'
'Is it age?' Brunetti asked with studied lack of interest.
'I certainly hope so,' Rizzardi answered lightly. 'I had a wonderful memory in medical school: you can't get through without it: all those bones, those nerves, the muscles ...'
'The diseases,' volunteered Brunetti.
'Yes, those too. But just remembering all the parts of this,' the pathologist said, flipping the backs of his hands down the front of his own body, 'that's a triumph.' Then, more reflectively, 'But what's inside, that's a miracle.'
'Miracle?' Brunetti asked.
'In a manner of speaking,' Rizzardi said. 'Something wonderful.' Rizzardi looked at his friend and must have seen something he liked, or trusted, for he went on, 'If you think about it, the most ordinary things we do – picking up a glass, tying our shoes, whistling ... they're all tiny miracles.'
'Then why do you do what you do?' Brunetti asked, surprising himself with the question.
'What?' Rizzardi asked. 'I don't understand.'
'Work with people after the miracles are over,' Brunetti said for want of a better way to say it.
There was a long pause before Rizzardi answered. At last he said, 'I never thought of it that way.' He looked down at his own hands, turned them over and studied the palms for a moment. 'Maybe it's because what I do lets me see more clearly the way things work, the things that make the miracles possible.'
As if suddenly embarrassed, Rizzardi clasped his hands together and said, 'The men who brought him in said there were no papers. No identification. Nothing.'
Rizzardi shrugged. 'They bring them in here naked. Your men must have taken everything back to the lab.'
Brunetti made a noise of agreement or understanding or perhaps of thanks. 'I'll go over there and have a look. The report I read said they found him at about six.'
Rizzardi shook his head. 'I don't know anything about that, only that he was the first one today.'
Surprised – this was Venice, after all – Brunetti asked, 'How many more were there?'
Rizzardi nodded towards the two fully draped figures on the other side of the room. 'Those old people over there.'
'The son says his father was ninety-three, his mother ninety.'
'What happened?' Brunetti asked. He had read the papers that morning, but no mention had been made of their deaths.
'One of them made coffee last night. The pot was in the sink. The flame went out, but the gas was still on.' Rizzardi added, 'It was an old stove, the kind you need a match for.'
Then, before Brunetti could speak, the doctor went on, 'The neighbour upstairs smelled gas and called the firemen, and when they went in they found the place full of gas, the two of them dead on top of the bed. The cups and saucers were beside them.'
In the face of Brunetti's silence, Rizzardi added, 'It's a good thing the place didn't blow up.'
'It's a strange place for people to drink coffee,' Brunetti said.
Rizzardi gave his friend a sharp look. 'She had Alzheimer's and he didn't have the money to put her anywhere,' then added, 'The son has three kids and lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Mogliano.'
Brunetti said nothing.
'The son told me,' Rizzardi continued, 'that his father said he couldn't take care of her any more, not the way he wanted to.'
'He left a note. Said he didn't want people to think he was losing his memory and had forgotten to turn the gas off.' Rizzardi turned away from the dead and moved towards the door. 'He had a pension of five hundred and twelve Euros, and she had five hundred and eight.' Then, like doom itself, he added, 'Their rent was seven hundred and fifty a month.'
'I see,' Brunetti said.
Rizzardi opened the door and let them into the corridor of the hospital.CHAPTER 2
They walked down the corridor in companionable silence, Brunetti's thoughts divided between his own lingering terror at his mother's fate and Rizzardi's talk of a 'miracle'. Well, who better to contemplate that than someone who had it under his hands every day?
He considered the note the old man had left for his son, words written from the heart of something Brunetti found so fearful that he could not bear to name it. It had been deliberately willed, this opting out of life, and the old man had chosen it for both of them. But first he had made their coffee. With a deliberate lurch of his mind, Brunetti freed himself from the room where the two old people had drunk their coffee and the inevitability of the choice that had moved them from that place to the chill room where he had seen them.
He turned to Rizzardi and asked, 'Is there a way I could use this Marlung disease – if he's being treated for it – as a way to find out who he is?'
'Madelung,' Rizzardi corrected automatically, then went on, 'You might send an official request for information to the hospitals with centres for genetic diseases, with a description of him.' Then, after a moment's reflection, the doctor added, 'Assuming he's been diagnosed, that is.'
Thinking back to the man he had seen on the table, Brunetti asked, 'But how could he not be? Diagnosed, that is. You saw his neck, the size of him.'
Outside the door to his office, Rizzardi turned to Brunetti and said, 'Guido, there are people walking around everywhere with symptoms of serious disease so visible they'd cause any doctor's hair to catch fire if they saw them.'
'And?' Brunetti asked.
'And they tell themselves it's nothing, that it will go away if they just ignore it. They'll stop coughing, the bleeding will stop, the thing on their leg will disappear.'
'And sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't.'
'And if it doesn't?' Brunetti asked.
'Then I get to see them,' Rizzardi said grimly. He gave himself a shake, as if, like Brunetti, he wanted to free himself of certain thoughts, and added, 'I know someone at Padova who might know about Madelung: I'll call her. That's the likely place someone from the Veneto would go.'
And if he's not from the Veneto? Brunetti found himself wondering, but he said nothing to the pathologist. Instead, he thanked him and asked if he wanted to go down to the bar for a coffee.
'No, thanks. Like yours, my life is filled with papers and reports, and I planned to waste the rest of my morning reading them and writing them.'
Brunetti accepted his decision with a nod and started towards the main entrance of the hospital. A lifetime of good health had done nothing to counter the effects of imagination; thus Brunetti was often subject to the attacks of diseases to which he had not been exposed and of which he displayed no symptoms. Paola was the only person he had ever told about this, though his mother, while she was still capable of knowing things, had known, or at least suspected. Paola managed to see the absurdity of his uneasiness: it is too much to call them fears, since a large part of him was never persuaded that he actually had the disease in question.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Beastly Things"
Copyright © 2012 Donna Leon and Diogenes Verlag AG Zurich.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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