On a trip this summer I picked up one of Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti murder mysteries in an airport bookstore and quickly became a fan; I’ve now read the entire series (sixteen so far, with a seventeenth due out in April). Not only are they quite good generally, but I also think they’d be of particular interest to left-libertarians. Not that the author, an American expatriate living in Venice, is by any means a libertarian; I would guess that her political sympathies are broadly social-democratic. But because Leon combines traditionally leftist concerns (environmentalism, feminism, secularism, gay rights, antiracism, antimilitarism, anti-nationalism, opposition to class exploitation) with a deep skepticism about political solutions, the overall vision that emerges from her novels is relentlessly left-libertarian.
Venetian police commissioner Guido Brunetti is not an eccentric detective on the model of Holmes or Poirot or Columbo; he is simply a fundamentally decent man struggling to do the right thing in a corrupt world. His wife sometimes accuses him of caring more for the law than for justice, but the charge is clearly false; Brunetti cares little for the letter of the law and is indeed quite willing to bend or break it. By contrast with fictional police heroes of the Dirty Harry stripe, these bendings and breakings of the law are more often to help someone evade the clutches of what Brunetti wryly calls the “forces of order” than to broaden those forces’ grasp. When in the course of his investigations Brunetti comes across evidence of tax evasion or violation of various petty regulations, he always ignores it, identifying less with the state apparatus than with the vast informal fraternity of ordinary people trying to get on with their peaceful lives.
The grain of truth in the charge is that Brunetti has abandoned all hope of achieving justice in the large; he has seen that the system is too hopelessly corrupt for that, and so can only hope to use the tool of the law to achieve little bits of justice here and there. And even this more modest ambition is not necessarily successful. While Brunetti always solves the crime, he doesn’t always manage to apprehend the criminal, who frequently proves to be too highly placed in government, business, church, military, nobility, or Mafia to be touched. Brunetti’s chief obstacle is generally his fatuous kiss-up-kick-down supervisor, Giuseppe Patta, who tries to make sure that Brunetti’s inquiries cause no discomfort too far up the hierarchy.
In Book 13 Leon describes Brunetti’s political evolution:
In his youth Brunetti had considered himself an intensely political man. He had joined and supported a party, rejoiced in its triumphs, convinced that its accession to power would bring his country closer to social justice. His disillusionment had not been swift …. He had denied, both in word and in belief, the first accusations of dishonesty and endemic corruption against the men he had been sure would lead their nation to a bright and just future. But then he had looked at the evidence against them, not as a true believer, but as a policeman, and his certainty of their guilt had been immediate.
Since then, he had stayed clear of politics entirely, bothering to vote only because to do so set an example for his children, not because he now believed it could make any difference.
Brunetti’s quaint supposition that voting, despite being useless, sets his children a good example (of what? for what purpose?) aptly illustrates the fact that no coherent set of new political ideas has filled the place vacated by the old. As Brunetti puts it: “I don’t have any big answers, only small ideas.” Brunetti – like, one suspects, his author – is a leftist who has lost faith in the state without having acquired any faith in the market (probably, I would guess, because Leon identifies the market with the corporatist capitalism she rightly despises). Hence Leon’s novels share the left-libertarian vision of the problems, albeit not of the solutions. Leon sees no solution, and the Brunetti mysteries are consequently a model of how to live upright lives under conditions of political despair. Brunetti strives to achieve what small fragments of justice he can in his police work, while placing the core of his emotional concerns elsewhere – in his family (his wife Paola, an indignantly radical literature professor clearly modeled on Leon herself; his teenage children Chiara and Raffi, who never age despite the series’ having run for nearly two decades), and in his reading (his tastes run to Greek and Roman history; his wife prefers Henry James and Patrick O’Brian).
Incidents in Brunetti’s family life relieve the bleakness of the political landscape, as do loving explorations of Italian food and the geography – physical and cultural – of Venice. (I challenge anyone to read these books without longing to pay a visit to the Serene Republic. Given Leon’s antipathy – expressed both in the books and in interviews – toward the hordes of tourists that invade Venice annually, it’s ironic that she is nevertheless doing her part to inspire more of the same.) These digressions rarely contribute to advancing the plot, but as I’ve explained recently, I’m not a fanatical devotee of plot advancement; what matters is that the digressions contribute to the success of the story as a whole, not by pushing forward the plot of criminal investigation but by reminding us of what is really important, what deserves to be cherished amid the failures of the political.
While Leon uses Brunetti’s adventures as ways of vicariously expressing her rage and hopelessness concerning the Italian – and more broadly the global – political scene, there is plenty of humour in her books also. The aforementioned Giuseppe Patta, Brunetti’s pretentious asshole of a boss, provides Leon with some of her best opportunities to satirise the bureaucratic mindset; during interminable committee meetings, Brunetti and his colleagues relieve their boredom by playing surreptitious bingo, betting on which bit of bureaucratese jargon Patta will use next.
Not all the humour is political satire. Here are a couple more examples of Leon’s humour, this one from Book 11:
[H]e was even happier to see that she was reading a magazine. ‘What is it today, Signorina?’ he asked. ‘Famiglia Cristiana?’
She looked up but she did not smile. ‘No, sir, I always give that to my aunt.’
‘Is she religious?’ Brunetti inquired.
‘No, sir. She has a parakeet.’
And this one, doubtless autobiographical in inspiration, from Book 14:
The bookseller suggested they buy a heavy cardboard tube for the poster, which turned out to be a good idea, so thick was the press of people on the streets. Three or four times, bodies bumped into Brunetti with such force that an unprotected print would surely have been crushed. After the third time, Brunetti toyed with the idea of holding the cylinder at one end and using it as a club to beat their way through the crowds, but his awareness of how much at variance this would be with the Christmas spirit, to make no mention of his position as an officer of the law, prevented him from acting on that thought.
There are also passages of gratifying psychological and ethical subtlety, like this one from Book 8 relating the resolution of a conflict between Brunetti and his wife:
‘I’m sorry, Guido. I’m sorry for all the mess I’ve caused you. I do that to you and you can bring me flowers.’ She began to sob, face pressed into the soft petals of the irises …. He took them from her …. and put his arms around her. She sobbed against his chest ….He held her and rocked a bit from side to side, saying her name time and again. He had never loved her as much as at this moment. He felt a flash of vindication, then as quickly felt his face suffuse with a shame stronger than he had ever known. By force of will he pushed back all sense of right, all sense of victory, and found himself in a clean space where there was nothing but pain that his wife, the other half of his spirit, could be in such agony.
I suspect most readers don’t read the books in order – since some of the books are in print only in the U.S. and others only in Britain (though that is beginning to change, as the series gains in popularity). But it pays to read them in chronological order, because, e.g., sometimes a supporting character who is a murder suspect in one book will show up as a trusted ally in a later book, and if you read them in the wrong order you’ll know that suspect can’t be guilty and so you’ll lose some of the suspense.