Bureaucracy is never thrilling

Friends in High Places by Donna Leon ★★½

I discovered Donna Leon just a couple of years ago with the first of the Commissario Guido Brunetti novels, Death at La Fenice, which I enjoyed so much I began immediately accumulating as many of her other books as I could via BookMooch. I followed that first read with Dressed for Death which I also enjoyed. Leon’s books in some ways remind me of the Agatha Christie’s I more or less fed myself on as a teenager; clever and sophisticated, thrilling and suspenseful but never too graphic or violent (all things being relative). The Brunetti series is based in Venice, Italy, where Leon has lived many years and can therefore describe in great detail, bringing us far beyond the tourist attractions, are peppered with Italian expressions and seeped in Italian mores, which I find is a fantastic way to travel on the cheap. Brunetti is a very simpatico character: well read, with a strong moral fibre but not overly zealous; happily married to an interesting woman who is prominently featured; with a wholesome family life which he takes pains to protect from the sordid details of his daily professional reality.

Friends in High Places took me a long time to warm to. The plot centres around some tedious bureaucratic business (and when is it not?) involving Commissario Brunetti’s place of residence. A young government employee is found dead; Brunetti suspects foul play and eventually uncovers a conspiracy the likes of which could only happen in Venice. The story was convoluted and the pace fairly slow, and it was only towards the very end that I began to appreciate Leon’s construction, which in reality is more of a character-driven observation on ethics and moral integrity than a suspense-filled thriller. I can see the value in this book as part of a series, and can appreciate it as such in retrospect, but would definitely not recommend that someone new to Donna Leon start with this one. Not my favourite so far.


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