Books

Grove Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press

A Question of Belief

A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery

by Donna Leon

“The humid, oppressive Venetian summer is palpable in Donna Leon’s 19th Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery. . . . Leon creates such a rich sense of place that reading often feels like a slow vaporetto ride through the swelteringly humid canals of Venice, past splendid bridges and palazzi with time out for tramezzini and rich Italian coffee.” —Hallie Ephron, The Boston Globe

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • ISBN-13 978-0-1431-1895-4
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Publication Date April 28, 2010
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9711-5
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

Donna Leon’s sumptuous series of novels featuring the principled, warmhearted Venetian Commissario Guido Brunetti have won her countless fans, critical acclaim, and international renown as one of the world’s best crime writers. In A Question of Belief, the nineteenth novel in the best-selling series, Brunetti must contend with ingenious corruption, bureaucratic intransigence, and the stifling heat of a Venetian summer.

With his hometown beset by hordes of tourists and baking under a glaring sun, Brunetti’s greatest wish is to go to the mountains with his family, where he can sleep under a down comforter and catch up on his reading of history. But before he can go on vacation, he has police work to do. A folder with court records has landed on his desk, brought by an old friend. It appears that certain cases at the local court—hardly known as a model of efficiency—are being delayed to the benefit of one of the parties. A creative new trick for corrupting the system, perhaps, but what can Brunetti do about it?

At the same time, Brunetti is doing a favor for his colleague, Inspector Lorenzo Vianello. The inspector’s aunt has taken a strong interest in astrology and has been regularly withdrawing large amounts of cash from the bank. But she won’t listen to her family, and Vianello doesn’t know what to do. Brunetti agrees to help. He assigns the Questura’s new recruits, who need training in following a suspect through Venice’s complicated streets, to see where the money is going.

And just when it looks like Brunetti will be able to get away for his well-earned rest, a shocking, violent crime forces him to shake off the heat and get down to work. A Question of Belief is a stellar addition to Leon’s celebrated series: atmospheric, packed with excellent characters, and building to an explosive, indelible ending.

Praise

“The much-admired atmosphere of Donna Leon’s mysteries derives from more than their pungent descriptions of Venetian life. Not that we don’t appreciate the scenic walks and vaporetto rides. . . . The special atmosphere that permeates Leon’s novels—and especially her latest, A Question of Belief—has more to do with the sense it conveys of a Venice teetering on the edge of oblivion and living on the faith that it won’t fall in. Brunetti thus has a dual function: to chronicle the city’s decline as it collapses under the forces of progress and its own internal corruption, and to save it from itself, one crime at a time.” —Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

“Masterful. . . . Brunetti patiently untangles a sordid skein of desires warped, trusts abused, and loves distorted into depravity. As one good man who still believes in the rule of law despite his disgust at Italy’s mounting corruption, Brunetti allows readers to share his belief that decency and honesty can, for a little while, stave off the angst of the modern world.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Leon’s many fans love this series for the Venetian setting, the complex family dynamics, and the hero’s mix of melancholy and compassion, and this nineteenth installment, they get all of the above.” —Bill Ott, Booklist (starred review)

“Brunetti is a marvel: smart, cultured, and dedicated to his work.” —The Washington Post

“Wonderful.” —Nina Sankovitch, The Huffington Post

“The humid, oppressive Venetian summer is palpable in Donna Leon’s 19th Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery, A Question of Belief. . . . This is a leisurely tale with no gun battles or car chases, just solid police procedure, the sifting of clues, and belatedly, a murder. The hero is a complex, cynical, and at times melancholy family man, trying to do his job and often stymied by government bureaucracy and blustering superiors. Leon creates such a rich sense of place that reading often feels like a slow vaporetto ride through the swelteringly humid canals of Venice, past splendid bridges and palazzi with time out for tramezzini and rich Italian coffee.” —Hallie Ephron, The Boston Globe

“Fast-paced, with a strong cast and a powerful look at Venice and its local government.” <—Harriet Klausner, The Mystery Gazette

“It’s hot as Hades in Venice, and Commissario Guido Brunetti is feeling the heat in this 19th installment in the best-selling series. Not only is the temperature soaring, but Brunetti is working on several hot, puzzling cases. As always, he is a superb police detective—calm, deliberate, and insightful as he investigates with a reflective thoroughness. . . . Unfortunately, just when Brunetti thinks he can finally escape on vacation to cooler climes, he is recalled to Venice because of a brutal murder. In the end, he solves one case, but the solution to the other remains hellishly ambiguous. Leon’s daring, provocative conclusion leads us to reflect upon the pernicious consequences of the usual culprits: sex, love, ambition, and greed. An excellent read, especially for those who enjoy intelligent, urbane, literary mysteries set in Europe.” —Lynne F. Maxwell, Library Journal

“If you are not reading Donna Leon’s novels with Venice Police Commissario Guido Brunetti, then you are missing out. . . . You won’t find an abundance of violence here. Instead, you can expect clever plotting, solid characterization and fine storytelling. If you are wondering why Time named Leon one of the top 50 mystery writers, then A Question of Belief will answer that question conclusively.” —Joe Hartlaub, Bookreporter.com

“Beautifully written, atmospheric and redolent of an Italian summer at its murderous best.” —Bruce Tierney, Book Page

“With her trademark flair and grace, Leon imbues A Question of Belief with a conclusion at once stunning and ambivalent and an atmospheric evocation of Venice, either of which would be reason for celebration. But she is not content to confine her gifts, and the third leg of her genius, rich characterization, is again on display as the reader’s appreciation of Brunetti continues to grow. . . . Literate and lovely, A Question of Belief reaffirms Leon’s place in the firmament of the genre.” —Jay Strafford, Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Do you ever feel like you need someone new in your life? Like maybe a new favorite author? Well, I have found one and it’s a wonderful infatuation—I want to read everything she has written. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that my husband wants to watch every single episode of NCIS every time one airs on the ‘repeat’ channel, but I’m not much of a mystery reader. However, there is now one big exception for me. Last year, I ran out of my books before I ran out of beach, so I borrowed a couple of my husband’s Donna Leon Commissario Guido Brunetti procedurals. The end of the first chapter hooked me. . . . In each novel, the investigation of crime and cruelty is nicely balanced by an intimate look into the decency of Brunetti, a man for whom justice is a passion, and the domestic delights he enjoys with his wife and their children. The pace of life is very different, including the workday, and you do feel that you’ve been away to Venice for a bit when you allow yourself to become immersed in the novels.” —Sally Davidson, South Carolina Now

“There are a bare handful of mystery authors who can maintain quality over 19 books. There are even fewer who can claim the latest works are some of their best. A Question of Belief puts Donna Leon in that category. It is a stunning novel, the best of this brilliant series, with a twist at the end that will leave even the most sophisticated reader gasping. . . . Fans shouldn’t miss this, and if you’re not already a devotee, start here and work your way backward.” —Margaret Cannon, The Globe & Mail (Canada)

“Leon’s books are a joy, and the 19th Venice-based Commissario Brunetti novel is well up to her consistently high standard.” —Laura Wilson, The Guardian (UK)

“Leon vividly churns the social and political stew of her adopted city through Brunetti’s eternally dismayed but unvanquished eyes. Despite a wry, laconic delivery, her soft, lingering touch reveals a keen compassion as Brunetti’s cynical fatalism vies with a stubborn faith.” —John Sullivan, Winnipeg Free Press

“Rich as always in the minutiae of personal interplay and, as always, recommended.” —James Mitchell, Tonight South Africa

“Brunetti is sweltering in a summertime Venice overrun with tourists. He’s dreaming of a family vacation in the mountains, but before he can leave, two investigations, begun as favors for friends, reveal unsavory criminal activity—and his family leaves without him. As always, Leon provides wonderful characters and an unforgettable ending. This latest is a treasure.” —Anne McMahon, Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Awards

New York Times Extended Bestsellers list (#26 on 5-30-10)
A PNBA Bestseller
One of Deadly Pleasures Best Novels of the Year

Excerpt

1

When Ispettore Vianello came into his office, Brunetti had all but exhausted the powers of will keeping him at his desk. He had read a report about gun trafficking in the Veneto, a report that had made no mention of Venice; he had read another one suggesting the transfer of two new recruits to the Squadra Mobile before realizing his name was not on the list of people who should read it; and now he had read half of a ministerial announcement about changes in the regulations concerning early retirement. That is, he had read half, if that verb could be applied to the level of attention Brunetti had devoted to the reading of the entire document. The paper lay on his desk as he stared out his window, hoping someone would come in and pour a bucket of cold water on his head or that it would rain or that he would experience the Rapture and thus escape the trapped heat of his office and the general misery of August in Venice.

Deus ex machina, therefore, could have been no more welcome than was Vianello, who came in carrying that day’s Gazzetta dello Sport. “What’s that?” Brunetti asked, pointing to the pink newspaper and giving unnecessary emphasis to the second word. He knew what it was, of course, but he failed to understand how it could be in Vianello’s possession.

The Inspector glanced at the paper, as if himself surprised to see it there, and said, “Someone dropped it on the stairs. I thought I’d take it down and leave it in the squad room.”

“For a minute I thought it was yours,” Brunetti said, smiling.

“Don’t scorn it,” Vianello said, tossing the paper on to Brunetti’s desk as he sat. “The last time I looked at it, there was a long article about the polo teams out near Verona.”

“Polo?” Brunetti asked.

“It seems. I think there are seven polo teams in this country, or maybe that’s only around Verona.”

“With ponies and the white suits and hard hats?” Brunetti could not prevent himself from asking.

Vianello nodded. “There were photos. Marchese this and Conte that, and villas and palazzi.”

“You sure the heat hasn’t got to you and you’re maybe mixing it up with something you might have read in—oh, I don’t know—Chi?”

“I don’t read Chi, either,” Vianello said primly.

“Nobody reads Chi,” Brunetti agreed, for he had never met a person who would confess to doing so. “The information in the stories is carried by mosquitoes and seeps into your brain if you’re bitten.”

“And I’m the one affected by the heat,” Vianello said.

They sat in limp companionship for a moment, neither of them capable of the energy necessary to discuss the heat. Vianello leaned forward to reach behind himself and unstick his cotton shirt from his back.

“It’s worse on the mainland,” Vianello said at last. “The guys in Mestre said it was 41 degrees in the front offices yesterday afternoon.”

“I thought they had air conditioning.”

“There’s some sort of directive from Rome, saying that they can’t use it because of the danger of a brown-out like the one they had three years ago.” Vianello shrugged. “So we’re better off here than in some glass and cement box like they are.” He looked across at the windows of Brunetti’s office, thrown open to the morning light. The curtains moved listlessly, but at least they moved.

“And they really had the air conditioning off?” Brunetti asked.

“That’s what they told me.”

“I wouldn’t believe them.”

“I didn’t.”

They sat quietly until Vianello said, “I wanted to ask you something.”

Brunetti looked across and nodded: it was easier than speaking.

Vianello ran his hand across the surface of the newspaper, then sat back. “You ever,” he began, paused as if trying to find the proper wording, then went on, “Read the horoscope?”

After a moment, Brunetti answered, “Not consciously.” Seeing Vianello’s confusion, he continued, “That is, I don’t remember ever opening the newspaper to look for them. But I do glance at them if someone leaves the paper open to that page. But not actively.” He waited for some sort of explanation; when none was given, he asked, “Why?”

Vianello shifted his weight in his chair, stood to smooth the wrinkles in his trousers, and sat down again. “It’s my aunt, my mother’s sister. The last one left. Anita.

“She reads them every day. Doesn’t make any difference to her if what they predict happens or not, though they never say anything much, do they? ‘You are going to take a trip.’ She goes to the Rialto Market the next day to buy vegetables: that’s a trip, isn’t it?”

Vianello had spoken of his aunt over the years: she was his late mother’s favourite sister and his favourite aunt, as well, probably because she was the most strong-willed person in the family. Married in the fifties to an apprentice electrician, she had seen her husband go off to Torino in search of work within weeks of marrying him. She waited almost two years to see him again. Zio Franco had had good luck in finding work, most of it with Fiat, where he had been able to study and become a master electrician.

Zia Anita moved to Torino to join him and spent six years with him there; after the birth of their first son, they had moved to Mestre, where he set up his own business. The family grew, the business grew: both prospered. Franco had retired only in his late seventies and, much to the surprise of his children, all of whom had grown up on terraferma, moved back to Venice. When asked why none of her children had wanted to move back to Venice with them, she had said, “They had gasoline in their veins, not salt water.”

Brunetti was content to sit and listen to whatever Vianello said about his aunt. The distraction would keep him from going to the window every few minutes to see if … If what? If it had started to snow?

“And she’s started watching them on television,” Vianello continued.

“Horoscopes?” Brunetti asked, puzzled. He watched television infrequently, usually forced to do so by someone else in the family, and so had no idea of what sort of thing was to be found here.

“Yes. But mostly card readers and those people who say they can read your future and solve your problems.”

“Card readers?” he could only repeat. “On television?”

“Yes. People call in and this person reads the cards for them and tells them what they should watch out for, or they promise to help them if they’re sick. Well, that’s what my cousins tell me.”

“Watch out not to fall down the stairs or watch out for a tall, dark-haired stranger?” Brunetti asked.

Vianello shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve never watched them. It sounds ridiculous.”

“It doesn’t sound ridiculous, Lorenzo,” Brunetti assured him. “Strange, perhaps, but not ridiculous.” He added, “And maybe not even so strange, come to think of it.”

“Why?”

“Because she’s an old woman,” Brunetti said, “and we tend to assume—and if Paola were here, or Nadia, they’d accuse me of prejudice against both women and old people for saying this—that old women will believe that sort of thing.”

“Isn’t that why the witches got burnt?” Vianello asked.

Even though Brunetti had once read long passages of Malleus Maleficarum, he still had no idea why old women had been the specific targets of the burnings. Perhaps because many men are stupid and vicious and old women are weak and undefended.

Vianello turned his attention to the window and the light. Brunetti sensed that the Ispettore wanted no prodding; he would get to whatever it was sooner or later. For the moment, Brunetti let him study the light and used the moment to study his friend. Vianello never bore the heat well, but he seemed more oppressed by it this summer. His hair, slicked down by perspiration, was thinner than Brunetti remembered. And the skin of his face seemed puffy, especially around his eyes.Vianello broke into his observations to ask, “But do you think old women really are more likely to believe in it?”

After considering the matter, Brunetti said, “I’ve no idea. You mean any more than the rest of us?”

Vianello nodded and turned back towards the window, as if willing the curtains to increase their motion.

“From what you’ve said about her over the years, she doesn’t sound the type,” Brunetti eventually said.

“No, she isn’t. That’s why it’s so confusing. She was always the brains in the family. My uncle Franco’s a good man, and he was a very good worker, but he never would have had the idea to go into business for himself. Or the ability to do it, come to that. But she did, and she kept the books until he retired and they moved back here.”

“Doesn’t sound like the sort of person who would begin her day by checking what’s new in the house of Aquarius,” Brunetti observed.

“That’s what I don’t understand,” Vianello said, raising his hands in a gesture of bewilderment. “Whether she is or not. Maybe it’s some sort of private ritual people have. I don’t know, like not going out of the house until you’ve found out the temperature or wanting to know what famous people were born on your birthday. People you’d never suspect. They seem normal in everything, and then one day you discover they won’t go on vacation unless their horoscope tells them it’s all right to go on a journey.” Vianello shrugged, then repeated, “I don’t know.”

“I’m still not sure why you’re asking me about this, Lorenzo,” Brunetti said.

“I’m not sure I know, either,” Vianello admitted with a grin. “The last few times I’ve gone to see her—I try to stop in at least once a week—there were these crazy magazines lying around. No attempt to hide them or anything. ‘Your Horoscope.’ ‘The Wisdom of the Ancients.’ That sort of thing.”

“Did you ask her about them?”

Vianello shook the question away. “I didn’t know how.” He looked across at Brunetti and went on, “And I suppose I was afraid she wouldn’t like it if I did ask her.”

“Why do you say that?”

“No reason, really.” Vianello pulled out a handkerchief and wiped at his brow. “She saw me looking at them—well, saw that I noticed them. But she didn’t say anything. You know, make a joke and say one of her kids left them there or one of her friends had been to visit and had forgotten them. I mean, it would have been normal to say something about them. After all, it was like finding magazines about hunting or fishing or motorcycles. But she was almost—I don’t know—almost secretive about it. I think that’s what bothered me.” He gave Brunetti a long, inquisitive look and asked, “You’d say something, wouldn’t you?”

“To her, you mean?”

“Yes. If she were your aunt.”

“Maybe. Maybe not,” Brunetti said, then asked, “What about your uncle? Can you ask him?”

“I suppose I could, but talking to Zio Franco is like talking to any of those men of his generation: they have to make a joke about everything, slap you on the back and offer you a drink. He’s the best man in the world, but he really doesn’t pay much attention to anything.”

“Not even to her?”

Vianello was silent before he answered, “Probably not.” Another silence, and then he added, “Well, not in a way anyone would recognize. Men of his generation really didn’t pay much attention to their families, I think.”

Brunetti shook his head in a mixture of agreement and regret. No, they didn’t, not to their wives nor to their children, only to their friends and colleagues. He had often thought about this difference in—was it sensibility? Perhaps it was nothing more than culture: surely he knew a lot of men who still thought it a sign of weakness to display any interest in soft things like feelings.

He could not remember the first time it had occurred to him to wonder whether his father loved his mother, or loved him and his brother. Brunetti had always assumed that he had: children did. But what strange manifestations of emotion there had been: days of complete silence; occasional explosive bouts of anger; a few moments of affection and praise when his father had told his sons how much he loved them.

Surely, Brunetti’s father was not the sort of man one told secrets to, or confided in about anything. A man of his time, a man of his class, and of his culture. Was it only manner? He tried to remember how his friends’ fathers had behaved, but nothing came to mind.

“You think we love our kids more?” he asked Vianello.

“More than whom? And who are we?” the Inspector asked.

“Men. Our generation. Than our fathers did.”

“I don’t know. Really.” Vianello twisted round and tugged repeatedly at his shirt, then used his handkerchief to mop at his neck. “Maybe all we’ve done is learned new conventions. Or maybe we’re expected to behave in a different way.” He leaned back. “I don’t know.”

“Why’d you tell me?” Brunetti asked. “About your aunt, I mean.”

“I guess I wanted to hear how it sounded, whether if I listened to myself talk about it, I’d know if I should be worried about her or not.”

“I wouldn’t worry until she starts reading your palm, Lorenzo,” Brunetti said, trying to lighten the mood.

Vianello shot him a stricken look. “Might not be far off, I’m afraid,” he said, failing to make a joke of it. “You think we should drink coffee in this heat?”

“Why not?”

Reading Group Guide

1. When Vianello shares his concerns about his aged aunt’s increasing interest in spiritual mediums with Brunetti, the commissario admits that the hobby doesn’t sound so strange “because she’s an old woman . . . and we tend to assume . . . that old women will believe that sort of thing” (p. 5). Do you agree with Brunetti’s reluctant admission? What social and other factors are behind his assumption?

2. What is Toni Brusca’s position, and why has he come to visit Brunetti at the Questura? What is the job of the chief usher in the Italian court system? Although Fontana is “just a clerk,” what kinds of power does Brusca suspect he actually wields?

3. Brunetti “was seldom . . . moved to indignation by some new revelation of the skill with which his fellow citizens managed to slip around the edges of the law” (p. 24). Why does the rule of law command so little respect in Italian society, even among such principled law enforcers as Brunetti? (Consider Paola’s comment about not getting a ricevuta fiscale when dining at the restaurant of a friend). What factors contribute to respect for rule of law in other societies?

4. What does Brunetti discover when he begins to research internet psychics, tarot card readers, and “astral consultants”? How are the services advertised, and what incentives are offered to potential customers? How is Brunetti’s work—specifically, as an interrogator of suspects or witnesses—similar to the work being carried out by psychics or astrologists?

5. What does Signorina Elettra observe when she meets her friend for coffee and has the chance to see how the clerk Fontana and Judge Coltellini interact?Why does she doubt Fontana’s odd behavior is a sign of unrequited love? What other dynamic does she detect in his manner towards the judge?

6. What kind of woman is Signora Fontana? What kind of relationship did she seem to have with her son? Why does Inspector Griffoni suspect there is something she is hiding about him?

7. What’s Brunetti’s impression of Signora Fulgoni? Why does she bristle at the suggestion that she is socially acquainted with the Fontanas?

8. How does Brunetti gain entrance into the Marsano apartment? Who is Zinka, and what does she tell Brunetti about her employers? Why is she sympathetic to Fontana?

9. “The business of law was not the discovery of the truth, anyway, but the imposition of the power of the state upon its citizens” (p. 173). Do you agree with this statement generally, or as applied to a specific case? Why or why not? What precautions exist to prevent law from becoming a mere exercise of power by the state, and do they succeed at doing so?

10. What kind of lawyer is Avvocato Penzo? What sort of rumor does he share with Brunetti? What was Penzo’s relationship with Fontana, and what does he reveal about Fontana’s relationship with his mother?

11. What does Brunetti, with the help of Signorina Elettra, discover about the living arrangements of the tenants in Fontana’s building? Why are the terms of the rentals unusual? Given the state of real estate in Venice, what kind of obligation do such arrangements seem to place on the party that enjoys the housing? Why is Fontana’s mother so particularly enamored of her apartment?

12. On what grounds does Vice-Questore Patta object to Brunetti’s questioning of Sinora Fulgoni? What does it mean to be “a friend of the Questore?” Why is Patta inclined to suspect his employees rather than his social contacts?

13. How does Fontana’s cousin describe him? Why did Fontana “separate his emotional life from his sexual life?” ( p. 208). Why does it turn out that he could never have been in a relationship with Renato Penzo, as Brunetti first suspected?

14. Why had Brunetti asked Rizzardi about his impressions of Singora Montini? Why does Signora Montini panic when asked about inconsistency of lab results? How does it turn out she helped Signor Gorini generate business through her work at the lab? Does she seem to truly believe in Gorini’s methods?

15. Why is Patta reluctant to believe Gorini could be in the wrong? Does his argument—that reordering all the tests recently performed by Signora Montini might “weaken . . . the public’s faith in government institutions” (p. 231)—hold water?

16. Why does Brunetti come to believe Signor Fulgoni might be gay? What sort of relationship do the Fulgonis seem to have? How do Brunetti’s separate interviews with the spouses proceed? Why is he unable to believe either side of the story completely, or to be optimistic about a successful prosecution?

Suggested Reading:

Other Commissario Guideo Brunetti mysteries from Donna Leon:

Death at La Fenice
Death in a Strange Country
Dressed for Death
Death and Judgment
Acqua Alta
The Death of Faith
A Noble Radiance
Fatal Remedies
Friends in High Places
A Sea of Troubles
Willful Behaviour
Uniform Justice
Doctored Evidence
Blood from a Stone
Through a Glass, Darkly
Suffer the Little Children
The Girl of His Dreams
About Face