Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Suffer the Little Children

A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery

by Donna Leon

“Donna Leon is the undisputed crime fiction queen . . . [Her] ability to capture the city’s social scene and internal politics is first-rate, as always, but this installment carries extra gravity and welcome plot twists that make it one of the series’ better efforts.” —Sarah Weinman, Baltimore Sun

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 304
  • Publication Date March 14, 2017
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2615-3
  • Dimensions 5" x 5"
  • US List Price $16.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date October 15, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-1-5558-4906-1
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

Donna Leon’s charming, evocative, and addictive Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries are widely acclaimed national and international best sellers, reaching a wider audience in the United States than ever before. Her latest, Suffer the Little Children, is classic Brunetti, a fantastic addition to the series.

When Commissario Brunetti is summoned in the middle of the night to the hospital bed of a senior pediatrician, he is confronted with more questions than answers. Three men—a young Carabiniere captain and two privates from out of town—had burst into the doctor’s apartment while the family was sleeping, attacked him, and taken away his eighteen-month-old boy. What could have motivated an assault by the forces of the state so violent that it has left the doctor mute? Who would have authorized such an alarming operation?

As Brunetti delves into the case, he begins to uncover a story of infertility, desperation, and illegal dealings. At the same time, Brunetti’s colleague, Inspector Vianello, discovers a moneymaking scam between pharmacists and doctors in the city. But it appears as if one of the pharmacists is after more than money. What secrets are in the records? And what has been done with them? Donna Leon’s new novel is as subtle and fascinating as her best mysteries, set in a beautifully realized Venice, a glorious city seething with small-town vice.

Praise

“First-rate and masterful.” —Publishers Weekly

“Donna Leon is keeping up an astonishingly high standard. In . . . Suffer the Little Children she achieves a perfect blend of characters, place, mystery, and social issues. . . . Her 16th Brunetti novel is also one of her best.” —Saturday Times (London)

“Loveable family man Commissario Brunetti is back in the latest installment of this charming but gripping crime investigation series, set in Venice. . . . Subtly chilling and laced with malice, it’s enthralling. . . .The vibrant descriptions of the city, littered liberally throughout the novel, and the details of Venetian family life, keep the series feeling fresh and will hold your curiosity while feeling comfortingly familiar.” —Woman (UK)

“Leon’s fans who use Brunetti as an insider’s guide to Venice will not be disappointed. As usual he takes us in all weathers and seasons off the beaten track, into the bars where he keeps going on quantities of coffee and delicious snacks, and the out-of-the-way trattorie that tourists rarely discover. There is one in the Via Garibaldi where he lunches with Inspector Vianello on turkey breast filled with herbs and pancetta that sounds worth seeking out.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)

“But while Leon raises some cogent social points in the course of the usual page-turning stuff, it’s never at the expense of her iron-clad storytelling skill. And Venice is conjured as atmospherically as we’d expect from a writer who does in words what Canaletto and Turner used to do in oils.” —Express (London)

“If you are a fan of Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti (I am), Suffer the Little Children, her latest book, is essential reading.” —The Lady (London)

Excerpt

“… and then my daughter-in-law told me that I should come in and tell you about it. I didn’t want to, and my husband told me I was an idiot to get involved with you because it would only lead to trouble, and he’s got enough trouble at the moment. He said it would be like the time when his uncle’s neighbor tapped into the ENEL line and started to steal his electricity, and he called to report it, and when they came, they told him he had to …”

“Excuse me, Signora, but could we go back to what happened last month?”

“Of course, of course, but it’s just that it ended up costing him three hundred thousand lire.”

“Signora.”

“My daughter-in-law said if I didn’t do it, she’d call you herself, and since I’m the one who saw it, it’s probably better that I come and tell you, isn’t it?”

“Certainly.”

“So when the radio said it was going to rain this morning, I put my umbrella and boots by the door, just in case, but then it didn’t, did it?”

“No, it didn’t, Signora. But you said you wanted to tell me about something unusual that happened in the apartment opposite you?”

“Yes, that girl.”

“Which girl, Signora?”

“The young one, the pregnant one.”

“How young do you think she was, Signora?”

“Oh, maybe seventeen, maybe older, but maybe younger. I have two boys, you know, so I could tell if she was a boy, but she was a girl.”

“And you said she was pregnant, Signora?”

“Yes. And right at the end of it. In fact, that’s why I told my daughter-in-law, and that’s when she told me I had to come and tell you about it.”

“That she was pregnant?”

“That she had the baby.”

“Where did she have the baby, Signora?”

“Right there, in the calle across from my place. Not out in the calle, you understand. In the apartment across the calle. It’s a little way down from my place, opposite the house next door, really, but because the house sticks out a little bit, I can see into the windows, and that’s where I saw her.”

“Where is this exactly, Signora?”

“Calle dei Stagneri. You know it. It’s near San Bortolo, the calle that goes down to Campo de la Fava. I live down on the right side, and she was on the left, on the same side as that pizzeria, only we’re both down at the end, near the bridge. The apartment used to belong to an old woman—I never knew her name—but then she died and her son inherited it, and he started to rent it out, you know, the way people do, by the week, to foreigners, or by the month.

“But when I saw the girl in there, and she was pregnant, I thought maybe he’d decided to rent it like a real apartment, you know, with a lease and all. And if she was pregnant, she’d be one of us and not a tourist, right? But I guess there’s more money if you rent by the week, especially to foreigners. And then you don’t have to pay the …

“Oh, I’m sorry. I suppose that isn’t important, is it? As I was saying, she was pregnant, so I thought maybe they were a young couple, but then I realized I never saw a husband in there with her.”

“How long was she there, Signora?”

“Oh, no more than a week, maybe even less. But long enough for me to get to know her habits, sort of.”

“And could you tell me what they were?”

“Her habits?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I never saw too much of her. Only when she walked past the window and went into the kitchen. Not that she ever cooked anything, at least not that I saw. But I don’t know anything about the rest of the apartment, so I don’t know what she did, really, while she was there. I suppose she was just waiting.”

“Waiting?”

“For the baby to be born. They come when they want.”

“I see. Did she ever notice you, Signora?”

“No. I’ve got curtains, you see, and that place doesn’t. And the calle’s so dark that you can’t really see into the windows on the other side, but about two years ago, whenever it was, they put one of those new street lamps just across from her place, so it’s always light there at night. I don’t know how people stand them. We sleep with our shutters closed, but if you didn’t have them, I don’t know how you’d get a decent night’s sleep, do you?”

“Not at all, Signora. You said you never saw her husband, but did you ever see any other people in there with her?”

“Sometimes. But always at night. Well, in the evening, after dinner, not that I ever saw her cook anything. But she must have, mustn’t she, or someone must have taken her food? You have to eat when you’re pregnant. Why, I ate like a wolf when I was expecting my boys. So I’m sure she must have eaten, only I never saw her cook anything. But you can’t just leave a pregnant woman in a place and not feed her, can you?”

“Certainly not, Signora. And who was it you saw in the apartment with her?”

“Sometimes men would come in and sit around the table in the kitchen and talk. They smoked, so they’d open the window.”

“How many men, Signora?”

“Three. They sat in the kitchen, at the table, with the light on, and they talked.”

“In Italian, Signora?”

“Let me think. Yes, they spoke Italian, but they weren’t us. I mean they weren’t Venetian. I didn’t know the dialect, but it wasn’t Veneziano.”

“And they just sat at the table and talked?”

“Yes.”

“And the girl?”

“I never saw her, not while they were there. After they left, sometimes she would come out into the kitchen and maybe get a glass of water. At least, I’d see her at the window.”

“But you didn’t speak to her?”

“No, as I told you, I never had anything to do with her, or with those men. I just watched her and wished she’d eat something. I was so hungry when I was pregnant with Luca and Pietro. I ate all the time. But I was lucky that I never gained too much …”

“Did the men eat, Signora?”

“Eat? Why, no, I don’t think they ever did. That’s strange, isn’t it, now that you mention it? They didn’t drink anything, either. They just sat there and talked, like they were waiting for a vaporetto or something. After they left, sometimes she’d go into the kitchen, but she never turned the light on. That was the funny thing: she never turned the lights on at night, not anywhere in the apartment, at least anywhere I could see. I could see the men sitting there, but I saw her only during the day or, sometimes, when she walked past a window at night.”

“And then what happened?”

“Then one night I heard her calling out, but I didn’t know what she was saying. One of the words might have been ‘mamma,’ but I’m not really sure. And then I heard a baby. You know the noise they make when they’re born? Nothing like it in the world. I remember when Luca was born …”

“Was anyone else there?”

“What? When?”

“When she had the baby.”

“I didn’t see anyone, if that’s what you mean, but there must have been someone. You can’t just leave a girl to have a baby on her own, can you?”

“At the time, Signora, did you wonder why she was living in the apartment alone?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I thought her husband was away or that she didn’t have one, and then the baby came too fast for her to get to the hospital.”

“It’s only a few minutes to the hospital from there, Signora, isn’t it?”

“I know, I know. But it can happen, you know, that it comes on you very fast. My two boys took a long time, but I’ve known women who had only a half-hour, or an hour, so I figured that’s what happened with her. I heard her, and then I heard the baby, and then I didn’t hear anything.”

“And then what happened, Signora?”

“The next day, or maybe it was the day after that – I don’t remember – I saw another woman, standing at the open window and talking on the telefonino.”

“In Italian, Signora?”

“In Italian? Wait a minute. Yes, yes, it was Italian.”

“What did she say?”

“Something like, “Everything’s fine, We’ll see one another in Mestre tomorrow.”

“Could you describe this woman, Signora?”

“You mean what she looked like?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, let me think a minute. She was about the same age as my daughter-in-law. She’s thirty-eight. Dark hair, cut short. Tall, like my daughter-in-law, but perhaps not as thin as she is. But, as I told you, I saw her only for a minute, when she was talking on the telefonino.”

“And then?”

“And then they were gone. The next day, there was no one in the apartment, and I didn’t see anyone there for a couple of weeks. They just vanished.”

“Do you know if any of your neighbors noticed any of this, Signora?”

“Only the spazzino. I saw him one day, and he said he knew there was someone in there because they left a garbage bag outside the door every morning, but he never saw anyone going in or out.”

“Did any of the neighbors ever say anything to you about it?”

“No, not to me. But I imagine some of them must have noticed that someone was in there, or heard something.”

“Did you speak to anyone about this, Signora?”

“No, not really. To my husband, but he told me not to have anything to do with it, that it wasn’t any of our business. If he knew I was here now, I don’t know what he’d do. We’ve never been involved with the police before, and it always leads to trouble … oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that, not really, but you know how it is, I mean, you know how people think.”

“Yes, Signora, I do. Can you remember anything else?”

“No, not really.”

“Do you think you’d recognize the girl again if you saw her?”

“Maybe. But we look so different when we’re pregnant, especially at the end like she was. With Pietro, I looked like a …”

“Do you think you’d recognize any of the men, Signora?”

“Maybe, maybe I would. But maybe I wouldn’t.”

“And the woman?”

“No, probably not. She was there, at the window, for only a minute and she was standing sort of sideways, like she was keeping her eye on something in the apartment. So no, not her.”

“Can you think of anything else that might be important?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“I’d like to thank you for coming to see us, Signora.”

“I wouldn’t have if my daughter-in-law hadn’t made me. You see, I told her about it while it was going on, how strange it all was, with the men and no lights and all. It was something to talk about, you see. And then when she had the baby and then they all disappeared, well, my daughter-in-law told me I had to come and tell you about it. She said I might get into trouble if anything happened and you found out I saw her there and hadn’t come in to tell you. She’s like that, you see, my daughter-in-law, always afraid she’s going to do something wrong. Or that I will.”

“I understand. I think she told you to do the right thing.”

“Maybe. Yes, it’s probably a good thing I told you. Who knows what it’s all about, eh?”

“Thank you again for your time, Signora. The Inspector will go downstairs with you and show you the way out.”

“Thank you. Er … ?”

“Yes, Signora?”

“My husband won’t have to find out that I’ve been here, will he?”

“Certainly not from us, Signora.”

“Thank you. I don’t want you to think anything bad of him, but he just doesn’t like us to get mixed up in things.”

“I understand completely, Signora. You can be perfectly sure that he won’t find out.”

“Thank you. And good morning.”

“Good morning, Signora. Inspector Vianello, will you take the Signora to the front door?”

Reading Group Guide

Suffer the Little Children by Donna Leon

By L. Katz

1. What does the novel’s opening chapter, a police interview with an anonymous local woman, reveal about norms in Venetian society? What is her attitude towards the police? Who does she consider to be outsiders, and how does she regard them? Describing the strangers across the street, she says, “Yes, they spoke Italian, but they weren’t us. I mean they weren’t Venetian” (p. 4). Consider how other characters in the novel define themselves vis-“-vis their city, region, and country, i.e. Paola describing her feelings of devotion as “not to patria, not to the whole country, just to this part of it” (p. 92).

2. As in all of Donna Leon’s novels, food plays a crucial role in the city’s social and cultural fabric. In what ways does food signal love, camaraderie, or deviance throughout the novel? How does Brunetti use coffee as currency, for example? What role does food play in his marriage and family life, and in his work relationships? Does food play a similar role in contemporary American society?

3. How is Gustavo Pedrolli introduced to the reader? Consider what Leon reveals about him in the first few pages. What is he doing, and how is he behaving? What are his feelings toward Alfredo? What is the state of his marriage? Are there any ambiguities in his relationship with his wife?

4. Consider the relationship between local police and the Carabinieri. What are the jurisdictions of each branch? What stereotypes does each hold about the other? Are these conflicts inevitable when two law-enforcement agencies share jurisdiction over a territory?

5. Marvilli, the Carabinieri captain, is treated with suspicion by Brunetti and with derision by the hospital staff. What about him, other than the actions of his team, arouses distrust? Why does Vianello ultimately assume Marvilli is “all right”?

6. The title Suffer the Little Children is an allusion to Mark 10:14, which quotes Jesus as saying, ‘suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for such is the kingdom of God.” Consider this verse in the context of the novel’s events. How are children viewed in Italian culture? How do people react to the Carabinieri’s operation? What happens to the child at the center of the novel, Alfredo? Who shows concern for his condition and whereabouts, and who does not?

7. Brunetti remarks to Vianello that “the law is a heartless beast” (p. 51). Who does the law fail in the novel besides Alfredo? Consider actions that are legal but which strike Brunetti as dishonest.

8. What is the extent of Pedrolli’s injuries? What are his concerns when he signs to Brunetti from his hospital bed? Why do the Carabinieri ultimately decide to drop all but one of the charges against him?

9. The effects of and attitudes toward immigration in Italy become an important theme in the novel. What roles do immigrants perform in the novel? Are these similar to the roles immigrants generally perform in host societies? What socioeconomic positions do they occupy? Where do immigrants to Italy come from? (Consider Brunetti’s description of Eastern European tourists later in the novel, p. 164).Given most characters’ attitudes towards other cities and regions, how would you expect foreigners to be viewed? Are there similarities, or differences, to the perennial debates about immigration policy in the US?

10. In what way does Brunetti find the behavior of Bianca Marcolini, Pedrolli’s wife, surprising? What seems to be her primary concern? When she reveals to Brunetti that her sister is childless but that her husband’s siblings have children, is she suggesting there was pressure to fulfill social expectations by having a child? What else does Brunetti learn about her family?

11. When official channels of information fail–for example, when the Carabinieri refuse to answer his questions–what or who are Brunetti’s alternate sources of information? Consider what he is able to learn from the media, both from broadcast or printed reports, and from his own informal inquiries to reporters. Who else does he enlist in gathering information? Why is his wife Paola a particularly rich source?

12. At one point, Signorina Elettra tells Brunetti that “It’s almost as if we’re living in two worlds… a world where people have too many children, and they get sick and starve and die, and our world, where people want to have them and can’t” (p. 84). What does Brunetti learn in his research on falling birthrates and infertility in Western Europe? What are some of the reasons for the differences in fertility among Western Europeans and newly-arrived immigrants? Consider cultural and religious expectations as well as other factors, including socioeconomic conditions, education levels, gender roles, and access to resources such as contraception.

13. Fertility, as Signorina Elettra discovers, is big business: consider the lavish offices of the clinic she visits with Brunetti as well as the sheer number of clinics she finds in Verona. What other markets are described in the novel? Consider illegal adoptions; buying organs from Third-World donors for transplant in First-World patients; hiring illegal immigrants. What are the legal and ethical issues in each of these transactions? Discuss too other examples of commoditization in the novel: the sale of Venice’s masegni (p. 132-134) or the reduction of women to “tits and ass’ in media (p. 231-234), for example.

14. What is the nature of Paola and Brunetti’s disagreement about people’s drive to have children? How does each define “need” and “urge” (p. 141)? Can one be considered to be social and the other biological? What level of desire and control does each imply?

15. How do the Pedrollis explain their new baby to friends and family? What do they sacrifice in the process? How do various characters–Brunetti, Paola, Bianca’s father, doctors at the hospital–react to this story? What can you gather about contemporary attitudes towards extramarital affairs?

16. At one point, Brunetti contemplates a poet’s grief over his children’s deaths and remembers the poet’s wish that he “could lose all father now” (p.146). What specific pain does that suggest to Brunetti? Consider the fathers in the novel, from Brunetti to Pedrolli to Marcolini, Bianca’s father. How are they similar in their devotion to their children and families, and how are they different?

17. Who is Alfredo’s mother? Discuss her circumstances and the nature of her deal with Pedrolli. What was her motivation to give up her child? How do the police find her and why does she agree to talk?

18. What is the nature of the break-in at Franchi’s pharmacy? Why do Brunetti and Vianello dismiss the possibility of vandals or drug addicts? What sort of man is Franchi? When, earlier in the novel, Vianello mentions Franchi is a suspect in the fraud case, Brunetti thinks to himself that “if Vianello could be suspicious of a greedy man, then he could reserve for himself the right to have doubts about a religious one” (p. 113). How are the roles that law enforcement and religion play in society similar? In what ways does each threaten the other’s authority?

19. What kind of information does Vianello find in the medical records Franchi obtained? What do procedures and prescriptions reveal about actions, lifestyles, and future potential of patients? What kind of power did that information bestow on the pharmacist, and what did he choose to do with it?

20. At the crime scene in Franchi’s pharmacy, Bocchese collects blood samples that point to a likely suspect. What are this suspect’s motives for the crime? Why does Brunetti say that he will not be arrested or jailed?

21. Franchi obtained medical records illegally and acted unethically when he revealed privileged medical information to other parties. But consider the failure of the HIV-positive lawyer or the manic-depressive Romina Salvi to disclose critical medical information to their partners. Did each have an ethical obligation to reveal their illness? What about a legal obligation? Does anyone outside those relationships have an ethical or legal obligation to disclose that information at any point?

22. How did Marcolini make his fortune, and what has he done with it? What is the Lega Doge’s platform? How does Brunetti present himself and his political views in his conversation with Marcolini? What is Marcolini’s objection to the adoption? Is it the same as Bianca’s, at least as described by Paola?

23. Brunetti stops to admire Bellini’s Presentation in the Temple on his way home one evening (p. 184). What does he notice about the painting? How is the Christ child represented? Which themes of the painting are echoed in the novel? Consider who advocates for Alfredo, a child who is absent from the majority of the novel and the victim of its central crime. How does the legal system treat Alfredo? In what ways does it require his sacrifice?

24. The novel closes with another police interview. What does Pedrolli reveal to Brunetti about his motives for attacking Franchi? How does Pedrolli, in the end, retain a measure of control in a hopeless situation?

Suggestions for further reading:
The Baby Business: How Money, Science, and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception by Debora Spar