Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Uniform Justice

A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery

by Donna Leon

“Leon is probably the best mystery writer you’ve never heard of. . . . She uses the relatively small and crime-free canvas of Venice for riffs about Italian life, sexual styles and—best of all—the kind of ingrown business and political corruption that seems to lurk just below the surface.” —The Chicago Tribune

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 288
  • Publication Date March 12, 2013
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2029-8
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $16.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date October 15, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-1-5558-4908-5
  • US List Price $16.00

About The Book

Donna Leon has topped European bestseller lists and captivated fans throughout the world with her series of mysteries featuring the shrewd, charismatic Commissario Guido Brunetti. Guiding us through contemporary Venice’s dark undercurrents of personal politics, corruption, and intrigue, Donna Leon’s is “crime writing of the highest order: powerful, relevant and too full of human failings” (The Guardian).

This time, Commissario Brunetti faces an unsettling case that, because he is the father of a young son, hits him especially close to home. The body of a student has been found hanged in Venice’s elite, highly cloistered military academy. The young man is the son of a doctor and former politician, a member of Parliament who had an impeccable integrity all too rare in Italian politics. Dr. Moro is clearly devastated by his son’s death, but while both he and his apparently estranged wife seem convinced that the boy’s death could not have been suicide, neither appears eager to help in the investigation of the mysterious circumstances in which he died. Bolstered by the help the elegant and crafty Signorina Elettra, and the cooking and sympathetic ear of his wife, Paola, Commissario Brunetti sets off on an investigation that gets him caught up in the strange and stormy politics of his country’s powerful elite.

When Brunetti plunges into Dr. Moro’s political career and the circumstances of the doctor’s estrangement from his wife, he discovers unsettling details. How to explain the mysterious hunting accident in which Signora Moro was involved, and the fact that her marriage crumbled so soon after? As he investigates, Brunetti is faced with a wall of silence, because the military, who protects its own, and civilians, even at the cost of their lives, are unwilling to talk. Is this the natural reluctance of Italians to involve themselves with the authorities, or is Brunetti facing something altogether darker?

Uniform Justice is a riveting, pitch-perfect murder mystery—the work of a truly masterful storyteller. Conjuring contemporary Venice in exquisite and alluring detail, Donna Leon offers what has been widely hailed as the finest installment yet of the Commissario Guido Brunetti series.

Praise

“Despite the serious issues they raise, Leon’s books shimmer in the grace of their setting and are warmed by the charm of their characters. As a thinking man, Brunetti reads Cicero for moral direction, looks to his wife for doses of cynical realism and humbly consults his secretary, the terrifyingly efficient Signorina Elettra, on practical matters. But it is as a man of sensibility that this endearing detective most engages us. On his slow walks through Venice, he will go out of his way to exchange greetings with a myna in a pet shop or admire a woman’s legs in a coffee bar—quietly celebrating the way life goes on, even in an unjust world.” —Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

“A new Donna Leon book about Venice Police Commissario Guido Brunetti—the 12th in a memorable series—is ready for our immediate pleasure. Leon is probably the best mystery writer you’ve never heard of—unless you’ve picked up her best-selling books at foreign airports or bought copies of the British editions on the internet. She uses the relatively small and crime-free canvas of Venice for riffs about Italian life, sexual styles and—best of all—the kind of ingrown business and political corruption that seems to lurk just below the surface.” —Dick Adler, The Chicago Tribune

“For those who know Venice, or want to, Brunetti is a well-versed escort to the nooks, crannies, moods and idiosyncrasies of what residents call La Serenissima, the Serene One. . . . Richly atmospheric, [Leon] introduces you to the Venice insiders know.” —Ellen Hale, USA Today

Uniform Justice is a neat balancing act. Its silken prose and considerable charm almost conceal its underlying anger; it is an unlovely story set in the loveliest of cities. . . . [Donna Leon] is indeed sophisticated, and perhaps subversive, but you might find her novel’s leisurely pace, political concerns and cultural ruminations to be a welcome break from the ultra-violent assaults that confront us in much of today’s crime fiction.” —Patrick Anderson, The Washington Post

“There’s atmosphere aplenty in Uniform Justice . . . Brunetti is a compelling character, a good man trying to stay on the honest path in a devious and twisted world.” Jody Jaffe, The Baltimore Sun

“Venice provides a beautifully rendered backdrop for this operatic story of fathers and sons, and Leon’s writing trembles with true feeling.” —Erin Hart, The Minnapolis Star-Tribune

“One of the best of the international crime writers is Donna Leon, and her Commissario Guido Brunetti tales set in Venice are at the apex of continental thrillers. . . . [Uniform Justice] is a subtle but harrowing look at the price of conscience, the fears we have for loved ones in a malignant world and the price to be paid for insisting on answers and justice. The author has written a pitch-perfect tale where all the characters are three-dimensional, breathing entities, and the lives they live, while by turns sweet and horrific, are always believable. Let Leon be your travel agent and tour guide to Venice. It’s an unforgettable trip.” —Peter Mergendahl, The Rocky Mountain News

“Set in a cold and gray Venice, this is a must-read for Leon’s fans.” —Beverly Close, The Portland Oregonian

“Events are powered largely by Leon’s compelling portraits.” —P.G. Koch, The Houston Chronicle

“The plot is silky and complex [and] the main appeal is the protagonist, Brunetti. . . . One hopes that American publishers will make this entire series available, so readers can tag along with Brunetti from the beginning.” —Michele Ross, The Cleveland Plain-Dealer

“Leon, a wonderfully literate writer, sets forth her plot clearly and succinctly. . . . The ending of Uniform Justice is not a neat wrap-up of the case with justice prevailing. It is rather the ending one would expect in real life. Leon says that ‘murder mystery is a craft, not an art,” but I say that murder mystery in her hands is an art.” —Margaret Grayson, The Roanoke Times

“Leon skillfully keeps us, and the intrepid commissario, tantalizingly puzzled by this sad and unlikely death. . . . And you’ll be spellbound by all the studied menace and subterfuge Leon suggests is cultivated even today in a historic metropolis built almost literally, after all, from muddied waters. You won’t get the Venice of the guidebooks in Uniform Justice, but you’ll probably learn more in 259 pages about one of the world’s few genuinely unique cites than you would in 259 afternoons spent sipping Campari in Piazza San Marco.” —Rod Cockshutt, Raleigh News & Observer

“In evocative, psychologically astute prose, Leon reveals the many levels of irony in her title. The conclusion is brutal and worldly wise. . . . [Uniform Justice] is a swift, beautifully written mystery that will leave you nodding your head in yet another picture of a world where audacity and mendacity rule in utter contempt for everything else.” —Sam Coale, The Providence Journal

“The reader will be propelled through the unfolding mystery with trust in the perspicacious but humane Brunetti and his quest for justice. Along the way readers gain valuable insight into Italian customs and politics as Leon skillfully delineates the contours of the city.” —Claire Keyes, Salem Press

“[Leon] gives us a depth of character in all her people, including her bad guys. She also trusts the intelligence of her readers by not translating every title or object from Italian. If you’re looking for a mystery novel with wit, heart and class, get to know the books of Donna Leon.” —Lois Mark Stalvey, The Sedona Red Rock News

“Superb. . . . An outstanding book, deserving of the widest audience possible, a chance for American readers to again experience a master practitioner’s art.” —Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)

“American readers, having endured seven long years without a new Guido Brunetti novel, can now celebrate the return of Leon’s world-weary Venetian commissario. . . . It’s high time this series earns the accolades in the U.S. it has been receiving in Europe for years.” —Bill Ott, Booklist (starred review)

“A powerful indictment of an Italian society.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Outstanding. . . . This is not the Venice of Thomas Mann or Henry James; Leon’s city is winter-cold and gray, with corruption rather than gilt glinting through the fog, and a culture in the grip of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy that runs on secrets and bribes. The plot flows along like the Adriatic tide through a narrow canal—swift, none-too-clean and inevitable.” —PW Daily

“Deeply sympathetic portrait of a truth-seeker at war with monied time-servers, but Brunetti’s reflections giving point and poignancy to the conflict.” —Literary Review

“There is the joy of contemplating Venice: the veiled and ancient heroine, with a sad haunted beauty slipping away year by year. Read it in the dusk, with a grappa.” —Libby Purves, The Good Book Guide

“[Uniform Justice] marks the 12th appearance of Leon’s Venetian police Commissario, Guido Brunetti, a thoughtful, reflective family man who happens to pursue criminals. This series is addictive, partly because of the appealing Guido, who is as reverent about what is fresh at the Rialto market that morning as about seeing justice done.” —Joan Feeney, Bell”Italia

“[Brunetti] long ago joined the ranks of the classic fictional detectives.” —T.J. Binyon, The Evening Standard (UK)

“Classic, classy detective fiction, with its unique Venetian setting and a humane and down-to-earth protagonist.” —Manchester Evening News (UK)

“Wonderfully familiar characters, a powerful sense of place and expert plotting makes this 12th appearance of the down-to-earth Brunetti—now fully recovered from his earlier wounds in Mafia territory—a page-turner with real psychological depth and a disturbing, quiet power.” —The Guardian (Manchester)

“Ms. Leon once again captures the spirit of the city and the conflict between ordinary citizens and those with power and influence.” —Susanna Yager, Sunday Telegraph (UK)

“Donna Leon has gathered a fair following with her crime novels set in Venice. A new Leon is always a treat and this is no exception . . . It’s a challenging case for Brunetti, and an enjoyable read for you.” —Paul Larkin, Sunderland Echo

“Spellbinding . . . You don’t often think of Venice as a murder city, but Donna Leon has put it well and truly on the map and in Brunetti she has a character who could do for the city what Morse did for Oxford.” —Steve Craggs, Northern Echo

“The new Brunetti novel is darker and more moving than ever before and displays Leon at her best.” —Spain Magazine

“[Uniform Justice has] a stinging and effective surprise at the end . . . It is complex and thought-provoking and lingers in the mind.” —Margaret Walters, Sunday Times (UK)

Awards

A #1 Book Sense 76 Selection
A Publishers Weekly Book of the Year

Excerpt

Thirst woke him. It was not the healthy thirst that follows three sets of tennis or a day spent skiing, thirst that comes slowly: it was the grinding, relentless thirst that comes of the body’s desperate attempt to replenish liquids that have been displaced by alcohol. He lay in his bed, suddenly awake, covered with a thin film of sweat, his underwear damp and clinging.

At first he thought he could outwit it, ignore it and fall back into the sodden sleep from which his thirst had prodded him. He turned on his side, mouth open on the pillow, and pulled the covers up over his shoulder. But much as his body craved more rest, he could not force it to ignore his thirst nor the faint nervousness of his stomach. He lay there, inert and utterly deprived of will, and told himself to go back to sleep.

For some minutes he succeeded, but then a church bell somewhere towards the city poked him back to consciousness.

The idea of liquid seeped into his mind: a glass of sparkling mineral water, its sides running with condensation; the drinking fountain in the corridor of his elementary school; a paper cup filled with Coca-Cola. He needed liquid more than anything life had ever presented to him as desirable or good.

Again, he tried to force himself to sleep, but he knew he had lost and now had no choice but to get out of bed. He started to think about which side of bed to get out of and whether the floor of the corridor would be cold, but then he pushed all of these considerations aside as violently as he did his blankets and got to his feet. His head throbbed and his stomach registered resentment of its new position relative to the floor, but his thirst ignored them both.

He opened the door to his room and started down the corridor, its length illuminated by the light that filtered in from outside. As he had feared, the linoleum tiles were harsh on his naked feet, but the thought of the water that lay ahead gave him the will to ignore the cold.

He entered the bathroom and, driven by absolute need, headed to the first of the white sinks that lined the wall. He turned on the cold tap and let it run for a minute: even in his fuddled state he remembered the rusty warm taste of the first water that emerged from those pipes. When the water that ran over his hand was cold, he cupped both hands and bent down towards them. Noisy as a dog, he slurped the water and felt it moving inside him, cooling and saving him as it went. Experience had taught him to stop after the first few mouthfuls, stop and wait to see how his troubled stomach would respond to the surprise of liquid without alcohol. At first, it didn’t like it, but youth and good health made up for that, and then his stomach accepted the water quietly, even asked for more.

Happy to comply, he leaned down again and took eight or nine large mouthfuls, each one bringing more relief to his tortured body. The sudden flood of water triggered something in his stomach, and that in turn triggered something in his brain, and he grew dizzy and had to lean forward, hands propped on the front of the sink, until the world grew quiet again.

He put his hands under the still flowing stream and drank again. At a certain point, experience and sense told him any more would be risky, so he stood up straight, eyes closed, and dragged his wet palms across his face and down the front of his T-shirt. He lifted the hem and wiped at his lips; then, refreshed and feeling as if he might again begin to contemplate life, he turned to go back to his room.

And saw the bat, or what his muddled senses first perceived as a bat, just there, off in the distance. It couldn’t be a bat, for it was easily two metres long and as wide as a man. But it had the shape of a bat. It appeared to suspend itself against the wall, its head perched above black wings that hung limp at its sides, clawed feet projecting from beneath.

He ran his hands roughly over his face, as if to wipe away the sight, but when he opened his eyes again the dark shape was still there. He backed away from it and, driven by the fear of what might happen to him if he took his eyes from the bat, he moved slowly in the direction of the door of the bathroom, towards where he knew he would find the switch for the long bars of neon lighting. Befuddled by a mixture of terror and incredulity, he kept his hands behind him, one palm flat and sliding ahead of him on the tile wall, certain that contact with the wall was his only contact with reality.

Like a blind man, he followed his seeing hand along the wall until he found the switch and the long double row of neon lights passed illumination along one by one until a daylike brightness filled the room.

Fear drove him to close his eyes while the lights came flickering on, fear of what horrid motion the bat-like shape would be driven to make when disturbed from the safety of the near darkness. When the lights grew silent, the young man opened his eyes and forced himself to look.

Although the stark lighting transformed and revealed the shape, it did not entirely remove its resemblance to a bat, nor did it minimize the menace of those trailing wings. The wings, however, were revealed as the engulfing folds of the dark cloak that served as the central element of their winter uniform, and the head of the bat, now illuminated, was the head of Ernesto Moro, a Venetian and, like the boy now bent over the nearest sink, racked by violent vomiting, a student at San Martino Military Academy.

Reading Group Guide

The snaking, unmarked streets of canal-crossed Venice provide the perfect backdrop for intrigue and mystery in Donna Leon’s Uniform Justice, a novel in this elegant mystery series featuring the affable Commissario Guido Brunetti.

Guido Brunetti is a born-and-bred middle-class Venetian who investigates murder and high crime among the patrician families of old Venice. From his headquarters at the Questura, Brunetti pieces together his cases with the help of a few clever colleagues: the beautiful secretary and researcher Signorina Elettra, the loyal Vianello, the persistent Pucetti, and the often duplicitous and self-aggrandizing Vice-Questore Patta. But the Commissario is not just another heartless, hard-nosed sleuth whose sole life goal is the pursuit of the criminal. Every night he comes home to his wife and children and must bear the burden of being witness to terrible crimes without allowing his work to affect his family life. This humanity tempers his sleuthing with humility and empathy, allowing him to delve more deeply into the minds of his adversaries and uncover clues he might not otherwise be privy to.

In Uniform Justice, Commissario Brunetti arrives at the elite San Martino Military Academy to investigate the suicide of Ernesto Moro, a young, promising cadet who turns out to be the son of a prominent government official. The student’s family denies that Ernesto was the kind of boy who could kill himself. The Commissario casts a skeptical eye on the original pronouncement of suicide, but the further he tries to delve into the events that led up to the young man’s death, the more vague and openly hostile the military students become. Brunetti uncovers what may be a conspiracy to silence a report by Fernando Moro that would have blown the whistle on payola corruption in government spending. He sets out to accomplish the difficult task of proving that Ernesto Moro’s death was not suicide, but murder.

A longtime resident of Venice, Leon paints a perfectly rendered portrait of the city’s clash of Old World charms and New World treachery with vibrant depictions so convincing that you can practically taste the spaghetti alla vongole and hear the din of the vaporettos in the canals. Every scene bursts forth with the minute detail and stylish prose of a master of the genre. Lovers of crime fiction will embrace Commissario Brunetti and his cohorts in this exhilarating new addition to the annals of mystery.

Questions for Discussion:

1. Donna Leon’s stories paint a vivid picture of a Venice full of intrigue, with beauty and corruption in almost equal measures. How does the Venice of her books compare to the Venice of popular imagination—or to the real Venice?

2. Commissario Brunetti often uses his own experience (for example, as a loving father and husband) to understand the perpetrators’ motives. Do you think the antagonists are at all sympathetic characters? Why or why not?

3. A unique feature of Commissario Brunetti is that he comes home to a family he values above all else. In what ways does his being a family man make him a better detective? How does this compare to the typical characteristics of a great hero in mystery novels?

4. In your opinion, was Commissario Brunetti right to let Signor Moro make the decision about whether or not to pursue justice in his son’s death? What might you have done in Signor Moro’s situation?

5. If, like Signor Moro, you knew that a report you were compiling about government corruption was endangering your family’s lives, would you drop everything to save your family or pursue the truth in spite of threats? Would you be able to separate yourself from your family and live without them, as Signor Moro did, in order to save them?

6. Brunetti manages to conduct a casual conversation with Giuliano Ruffo, one of the students at the academy, before being pushed out the door by the barking Comandante. Why do you think Ruffo felt comfortable talking to Brunetti?

7. When Brunetti reaches for the phone to call Signora Moro, he says, “Who was it whose gaze could turn people to stone? The Basilisk? Medusa? With serpents for hair and an open glaring mouth.” What is the significance of these images?

8. Dottor Moro asks Brunetti whether or not he has read the short story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” How does this relate to Moro’s dilemma? What are the parallels between Moro’s life and Ivan Ilyich’s?

9. When Signorina Elettra tells Brunetti the story of the girl who cried rape at the academy but never pressed charges, he replies, “Tanto fumo, poco arrosto.” Why does Brunetti add quickly, “But thank God for the girl”? Why does Signorina Elettra go cold upon hearing his response to the story? How did you react to Brunetti’s nonchalance? Was your first impulse to believe that the girl in the story was raped or not?

10. Brunetti uses scare tactics to force a confession from Filippi’s roommate, Cappellini. The testimony would not be permissible in any court of law, but his words sound more truthful than almost anything anyone else has been able to tell Brunetti. What purpose does this truth-serum affirmation serve to the rest of the story? Without it, could you have believed Filippi’s dramatic tale of suicide as an autoerotic accident?

At Lunch with Donna Leon

by Elaine Petrocelli
Book Passage, Corte Madera, California

I actually enjoyed my recent plane ride to Italy because I was immersed in Uniform Justice. The miles flew by as one of my favorite detectives, the complex and fascinating Commissario Guido Brunetti, uncovered murder and corruption at a military academy. My husband, Bill, and I were on our way to Venice where we would interview Donna Leon.

As arranged, we found her waiting for us at the newsstand in the piazza. She was easy to find because she looks just like her pictures, including the stunning streak of white in her black hair. She graciously invited us to her apartment. The courtyard of the ancient building was filled with beautiful plants and the fragrance of blooming jasmine. Of course someone’s laundry was drying overhead. Donna Leon said, “I hope you don’t mind, the apartment is up sixty-two steps.” By the time we reached the top I was dripping sweat but she remained cool and composed.

The apartment is filled with treasures from all over the world. Donna claims that she is absolutely without ambition. “I just wanted to have fun and a nice life. I think for a period of about fifteen years I never lived on the same continent. I taught English and sometimes in desperation English as a second language. In the eighties I was in Saudi Arabia for nine months and it was so awful an experience I decided I would stop roaming around and move to Venice. I managed to get a job at the University of Maryland, which has a contract at the American military bases (in the Veneto). It allowed me to live as an Italian and work in English.”

In the early ’80s Donna Leon and a friend were in the dressing room at La Fenice chatting with the conductor and his wife. They began to talk of wanting to murder a certain conductor. Something clicked. “And since we were in a conductor’s dressing room, I thought hmm where, how? . . . So I wrote a book. The book sat in a drawer for a year and a half until a friend of mine nudged me. When I say I’m without ambition, I really mean it. This friend nudged me into sending it to a Japanese mystery contest. And when the letter came back I didn’t know what it was. I was invited there and it won.”

This led to a two-book contract and soon Donna Leon’s career in crime fiction was flying.

We spoke of Guido Brunetti, the detective who was born that day in the dressing room of La Fenice. In each book we learn more about his background and about his family and friends. Donna Leon’s comment was, “Well he’s a grown-up and he has a life.”

We spoke of crime fiction and of book reviews. Donna Leon reviewed crime fiction for several years for the Sunday Times of London. She likes books by Laura Wilson, P. D. James, Ruth Rendel, Reginal Hill, and Frances Fyfield. She prefers to have the violence take place off the page. “I don’t think it’s good for us to read that stuff, more so to write that stuff. I’ve never had a television and I don’t go to the movies so I am perhaps more attuned to the vision of violence. I just can’t do it.”

I couldn’t resist mentioning that I had noticed a book by the great Jan Morris on her dining table. “She’s divine. Pax Britannica, the footnotes, there’s so much. It’s so good to read people who really know how to write and she’s one of them. I just finished the new Jane Smiley. Did you read the new Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake?”

I had to pinch myself. I was sitting in a gorgeous apartment in Venice discussing great writers with Donna Leon.

Book Passage has been importing her books from England. This is both inconvenient and costly. Fortunately that will soon be remedied. Atlantic Monthly Press will publish Uniform Justice in fall 2003, and A Noble Radiance will be released in a Penguin mass-market edition. Then in spring 2003 we’ll get the Atlantic Monthly Press edition of Doctored Evidence at the same time that it’s published in Britain. Each year there will be a new hardcover book along with more paperbacks.

I want to know if Brunetti’s feisty wife, Paola, is based on Donna Leon. “Somewhat, yes. She teaches English literature and she has a lot of my crazy political ideas.”

How about her parents? “The count is wonderfully ambiguous. Like people, we think they are something and then they’re not.”

I wonder how the Venetians take to her books? “They’re not translated into Italian and they won’t be. That’s my choice because I do not want to live where I am famous. I think the reason I don’t like it is that is creates a certain kind injustice. . . . I don’t like being approached by people in a deferential way. That goes against my ideas of social intercourse. And it always makes my alarm bells ring. It just makes me feel creepy. I went to the Rialto this morning and then I went to the post office and I was stopped three times by German speakers. I don’t want to be famous. The postman calls me tu and makes me walk down all sixty-two steps to get the mail just like everybody else. I like that.”

Donna Leon’s books are translated into over twenty languages. They are wildly popular in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Her latest book hit number one on Der Spiegel best-seller list within days of publication.

She does author appearances in those countries, but always with music. “The reason I’m glad about the success is that it allows me to get people to listen to music. We do a lot of programs where I read and they sing. I’m happy to do that. I’ve had offers from a number of opera houses to do coproductions because my name will drag in borderline people who might not have been interested in a concert. And I’m very happy to do that. Otherwise I try not to do anything anymore. I don’t need to, but music needs it. Classical music has fewer and fewer listeners every year. Classical music is in serious trouble. The recording business is in serious trouble. It used to be ten percent, then seven percent. Now it’s between three and four percent.”

“I think it’s the failure to teach music in school. It’s somehow a failure of people of culture, whoever they are, to be willing to pass on musical culture to younger people. And somehow opera has picked up a snob appeal. And so young people will not venture to the opera because they see it as alien. They’ll go to a museum because that’s sort of harmless and you can’t make a mistake. You can’t clap at the wrong place in the museum.”

Baroque music, especially baroque opera, is her passion. “Intimate Baroque music is never pretentious.” Her work with the Il Complesso Barocco, conducted by Alan Curtis, keeps her traveling. She was in Switzerland yesterday and tomorrow she’ll be in Barcelona listening to a mezzo-soprano.

The soprano who had committed to sing with the orchestra in September has cancelled and now Donna Leon is off in search of the right voice to take the role.

As we leave Donna Leon and set off under the Venetian sun, I’m anxious to get on the train and dive into another novel by Donna Leon.