A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mysteryby Donna Leon
“[Brunetti’s] humane police work is disarming, and his ambles through the city are a delight.” —Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
When Commissario Guido Brunetti first meets her, Claudia Leonardo is merely one of his wife Paola’s students. Intelligent and serious, she asks for his help in obtaining a pardon for a crime once committed by her now-dead grandfather. Brunetti thinks little of it—until Claudia is found dead. Unable to find any living relatives, he visits the elderly Austrian woman who was once Claudia’s grandfather’s lover and with whom Claudia was close—and is stunned by the extraordinary art collection she keeps in her otherwise modest apartment. When she, too, is murdered, Brunetti’s investigation uncovers shocking skeletons in the closet of Nazi collaboration that few in Italy want revealed.
“Donna Leon’s compelling series. . . . What makes Leon’s work especially unnerving is the sense that corruption is a continuing process. . . . This is a powerful story, brilliantly evoking Venetian atmosphere, and the characters of Brunetti and his family continue to deepen throughout the series.” —The Times (UK)
“Donna Leon’s novels have becomes successively more subtle, more complex and perhaps more serious, without ever losing their compelling power as narratives. This is especially true of Willful Behaviour; the story is wholly engrossing.” —The Evening Standard (UK)
Winner of the German Corine Prize for Fiction
The explosion came at breakfast. Brunetti’s position as a commissario of police, though it made the possibility of explosion more likely than it would be for the average citizen, did not make the setting any less strange. The location, however, was related to Brunetti’s personal situation as the husband of a woman of incandescent, if inconsistent, views and politics, not to his profession.
“Why do we bother to read this disgusting piece of garbage?” Paola exploded, slamming a folded copy of the day’s Gazzettino angrily on to the breakfast table, where it upset the sugar bowl.
Brunetti leaned forward, pushed the edge of the paper aside with his forefinger and righted the bowl. He picked up a second brioche and took a bite, knowing that clarification would follow.
“Listen to this,” Paola said, picking up the paper and reading from the headline of the leading article on the front page: “Fulvia Prato Recounts Her Terrible Ordeal.”
Like all of Italy, Brunetti was familiar with Fulvia Prato, the wife of a wealthy Florentine industrialist, who had been kidnapped thirteen months before and kept in a cellar for that entire time by her kidnappers. Freed by the Carabinieri two weeks before, she had spoken to the press for the first time the previous day. He had no idea what Paola could find especially offensive in the headline.
“And this,” she said, turning the paper to the bottom of page five. “EU Minister Confesses to Sexual Harassment in Her Former Workplace.” Brunetti was familiar with this case, as well: a female commissioner on the European Commission, he couldn’t remember what her exact position was—one of those trivial ones they give to women—had yesterday said at a press conference that she had been the victim of sexual aggression twenty years ago when she worked in a firm of civil engineers.
A man who had learned patience in his more than twenty years of married life, Brunetti awaited Paola’s explanation. “Can you believe they’d use that word? Signora Prato did not have to confess to having been the victim of kidnapping, but this poor woman confessed to having been the victim of some sort of sexual attack. And how typical of these troglodytes,” she said with a vicious jab at the paper, “not to explain what happened, only to say that it was sexual. God, I don’t know why we bother to read it.”
“It is hard to believe, isn’t it?” Brunetti agreed, himself genuinely shocked by the use of the word and more shocked that he had not registered its dissonance until Paola pointed it out to him.
Years ago, he had begun to make gentle fun of what he then dubbed her “coffee sermons,” the fulminations with which she greeted her reading of the morning papers, but over the years he had come to see that there was great sense in seeming madness.
“Have you ever had to deal with this sort of thing?” she asked him. She held the bottom half of the paper towards him, so he knew she was not referring to the kidnapping.
“Once, years ago.”
“In Naples. When I was assigned there.”
“A woman came in to report that she had been raped. She wanted to make an official denuncia.” He paused, letting memory return. “It was her husband.”
Paola’s pause was equally long; then she asked, “And?”
“The questioning was done by the commissario I was assigned to at the time.”
“He told her to think about what she was doing, that it would cause her husband a great deal of trouble.”
This time Paola’s silence was enough to spur him on.
“After she listened to him, she said she needed time to think about it, and she left.” He could still remember the set of the woman’s shoulders as she left the office where the questioning had taken place. “She never came back.”
Paola sighed, then asked, “Have things changed much since then?”
“Are they any better?”
“Minimally. At least we try to have female officers do the first interview.”
“If there are any on duty when it happens, when they come in.”
“And if there aren’t?”
“We call around and see if a woman can come on duty.”
“And if not?”
He wondered how breakfast had somehow become an inquisition. “If not, then they are interviewed by whoever’s available.”
“That means, I suppose, that men like Alvise or Lieutenant Scarpa could do the questioning.” She made no attempt to disguise her disgust.
“It’s not really questioning, Paola, not like when we have a suspect.”
She pointed at the Gazzettino, her fingernail tapping out a quick triple beat on the second headline. “In a city where this is possible, I hate to think of what any sort of questioning is like.”
He was just at the point of opposition when she, perhaps sensing this, changed her tone entirely and asked, “How’s your day look? Will you be home for lunch?”
Relieved, aware that he was tempting fate but helpless to stop himself, he answered, “I think so. Crime seems to be on holiday in Venice.”
“God, I wish I could say the same about my students,” she said with tired resignation.
“Paola, you’ve only been back at work six days,” he couldn’t prevent himself from saying. He wondered how she had managed to monopolize the right to complain about work. After all, he had to deal, if not on a daily basis, then at least with upsetting frequency, with murder, rape and battery, while the worst thing that could happen in her classroom was that someone would ask the identity of the Dark Lady or forget what happened at the end of Washington Square. He was about to say something to this effect when he caught the expression in her eyes.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“Huh?” He knew evasion when he heard it, saw it.
“I asked you what was the matter.”
“Oh, difficult students. The usual stuff.”
Again, he recognized the signs that she was reluctant to discuss something. He pushed back his chair and got to his feet. He came to her side of the table, braced his hand on her shoulder, and bent to kiss the top of her head.
“I’ll see you at lunch.”
“I’ll live in that single hope,” she answered and leaned forward to sweep up the spilled sugar.
Left alone at the table, Paola was faced with the decision of whether to finish reading the paper or to wash the dishes: she chose the dishes. That task finished, she glanced at her watch and saw that her only class of the day began in less than an hour, and so she went back to the bedroom to finish dressing, her mind absorbed, as was often the case, with the writing of Henry James, though in this case it was only to the extent that he might have influenced Edith Wharton, whose novels were to be the subject of her lecture.
She had been lecturing, recently, on the theme of honour and honourable behavior and the way it was central to Wharton’s three great novels, but she was preoccupied with whether the concept still had the same meaning for her students; indeed, whether it had any meaning for her students. She had wanted to talk about this with Guido that morning, for she respected his opinions on the subject, but the headline had diverted her.
After decades, she could no longer feign not to notice his usual response to her coffee sermons: that quickened desire to leave the table. She smiled to herself at the term he’d invented and at the affection with which he generally used it. She knew she responded too quickly and too strongly to many stimuli; indeed, in a moment of high anger, her husband had once drummed out a damning list of just which subjects would push her until she was past reason hunted. She refused to dwell upon his catalogue, its accuracy still enough to cause her a tremor of nervousness.
The first autumn chill had fallen on the city the day before so Paola took a light woollen jacket from the closet, picked up her briefcase and left the apartment. Though she walked through the city of Venice to reach her classroom, it was New York that was on her mind, the city where the drama of the lives of the women in Wharton’s novels had played out a century ago. Attempting to navigate the shoals of social custom, old and new money, the established power of men, and the sometimes greater power of their own beauty and charm, her three protagonists found themselves perpetually buffeted against the hidden rocks of honour. But passage of time, Paola reflected, had vaporized from the common mind any universal agreement on what constituted honourable behavior.
Certainly the books did not suggest that honour triumphed: in one case it cost the heroine her life; another lost her happiness because of it; the third triumphed only because of a constitutional inability to perceive it. How, then, to argue for its importance, especially to a class of young people who would identify—if indeed students were any longer capable of identification with characters who were not in film—only with the third?
The class went as she had expected, and she found herself, at the end of it, tempted to quote to them from the Bible, a book for which she had no special fondness, the bit about those who have eyes and fail to see, ears and fail to hear, but she refrained, realizing that her students would be as insensitive to the evangelist as they had proven themselves to be to Wharton.
The young people filed from the room, and Paola busied herself replacing papers and books in her briefcase. The failure of her profession no longer troubled her to the extent it had years ago, when she had first realized how incomprehensible much of what she said, and probably of what she believed, was to her students. During her seventh year of teaching, she’d made a reference to the Iliad and, in the face of general blankness, had discovered that only one of the students in the class had any memory of having read it, and even he was utterly incapable of understanding the concept of heroic behavior. The Trojans had lost, hadn’t they, so who cared how Hector had behaved?
“The times are out of joint,” she whispered to herself in English and then started in surprise, realizing that someone was standing next to her, one of the students, a young girl, now probably convinced that her professor was mad.
“Yes, Claudia?” she asked, fairly certain that was the girl’s name. Short, dark of hair and eye, the girl had a creamy white complexion that looked as though she had never been out in the sun. She’d taken a class with Paola the year before, seldom spoken, made frequent notes, and done very well in her exams, leaving Paola with a vague overall impression of a bright young woman handicapped by shyness.
“I wonder if I could speak to you, Professoressa,” the girl said.
Remembering that she could be acerbic only with her own children, Paola did not ask her if that was not what they were doing. Instead, she clipped shut her briefcase and said, turning to face the girl, “Certainly. What about? Wharton?”
“Well, sort of, Professoressa, but not really.”
Again, Paola refrained from pointing out that only one of these answers could be true. “What about, then?” she asked, but she smiled when she asked the question, unwilling to make this usually silent girl reluctant to go on. To avoid any suggestion that she might be eager to leave, Paola removed her hand from her briefcase, leaned back against the desk, and smiled again.
“It’s about my grandmother,” the girl said, glancing at Paola inquisitively, as if to ask if she knew what a grandmother was. She looked towards the door, back at Paola, then back to the door. “I’d like to get an answer about something that’s bothering her.” Having said that, she stopped.
When it seemed that Claudia was not going to continue, Paola picked up her briefcase and made slowly towards the door. The girl eeled around her and opened it, stepping back to allow Paola to pass through first. Pleased by this sign of respect and displeased with herself for being so, Paola asked, not that she could see it mattered much but thinking that the answer might provide the girl with a reason to give further information, “It is your mother’s or your father’s mother?”
“Well, really neither, Professoressa.”
Promising herself a mighty reward for all the unpro-nounced replies this conversation, if that’s what it was, had so far cost her, Paola said, “Sort of an honorary grandmother?”
Claudia smiled, a response which seemed to manifest itself primarily in her eyes and was all the sweeter for that. “That’s right. She’s not my real grandmother, but I’ve always called her that. Nonna Hedi. Because she’s Austrian, you see.”
Paola didn’t, but she asked, “Is she related to your parents, a great-aunt or something?”
This question obviously made the girl uncomfortable. “No, she’s not, not in any way.” She paused, considered, then blurted out, “She was a friend of my grandfather’s, you see.”
“Ah,” Paola replied. This was all growing far more complicated than the girl’s simple request had seemed to suggest, and so Paola asked, “And what is it that you wanted to ask about her?”
“Well, it’s really about your husband, Professoressa.”
Paola was so surprised that she could only echo the girl’s remark, “My husband?”
“Yes. He’s a policeman, isn’t he?”
“Yes, he is.”
“Well, I wonder if you’d ask him something for me, well, something for my grandmother, that is.”
“Certainly. What would you like me to ask him?”
“Well, if he knows anything about pardons.”
“Yes. Pardons, for crimes.”
“Do you mean an amnesty?”
“No, that’s what the government does when the jails are full and it’s too expensive to keep people there: they just let them all out and say it’s because of some special event or something. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean an official pardon, a formal declaration on the part of the state that a person wasn’t guilty of a crime.”
As they talked, they had progressed very slowly down the stairs from the fourth floor, but now Paola stopped. “I’m not sure I understand much of this, Claudia.”
“That doesn’t matter, Professoressa. I went to a lawyer and asked him, but he wanted five million lire to give me an answer, and then I remembered that your husband was a policeman, so I thought that maybe he could tell me.”
Paola let a quick nod serve for understanding. “Could you tell me exactly what it is you want me to ask him, Claudia?”
“If there is any legal process by which a person who has died can be given a pardon for something they were put on trial for.”
“Only put on trial for?”
The edges of Paola’s patience showed through as she asked,
“Not convicted and sent to prison for?”
“Not really. That is, convicted but not sent to prison.”
Paola smiled and placed a hand on the girl’s arm. “I’m not sure I understand this. Convicted but not sent to prison? How can that happen?”
The girl glanced over the railing and at the open door to the building, almost as if Paola’s question had spurred her to consider flight. She looked back at Paola and answered, “Because the court said he was mad.”
Paola, careful not to inquire about who the person might be, considered this before she asked, “And where was he sent?”
“To San Servolo. He died there.”
Like everyone else in Venice, Paola knew that the island of San Servolo had once been the site of the madhouse, had served that purpose until the Basaglia Law closed the madhouses and either freed the patients or removed them to less horrendous locations.
Sensing that the girl would not tell her, Paola asked anyway. “Do you want to tell me what the crime was?”
“No, I don’t think so,” the girl said and started down the steps. At the bottom she turned and called back to Paola, “Will you ask him?”
“Of course,” Paola answered, knowing that she would, as much now for her own curiosity as for any desire to do a favour for this girl.
“Then thank you, Professoressa. I’ll see you in class next week, then.” With that Claudia walked to the door, where she paused and looked up at Paola. “I really liked the books, Professoressa,” she called up the stairway. “It broke my heart when Lily died like that. But it was an honourable death, wasn’t it?”
Paola nodded, glad that at least one of them seemed to have understood.
Willful Behavior by Donna Leon
1. As a professor of literature, Paola is very attuned to language and its uses. What is behind her “explosion” over the paper at breakfast? Is the target of her anger a uniquely Italian phenomenon? What, if anything, does it indicate about contemporary Italian society?
2. What is Paola’s initial impression of Claudia Leonardo, and how does she arrive at it? What is unusual about the request Claudia makes of her professor?
3. How does Brunetti know Marco, the shopkeeper who comes to him for advice on getting building permits from the city? What is Marco’s dilemma, and why is Brunetti unable to help? What does he suggest Marco do?
4. When Claudia visits Brunetti’s office, the two bond quickly while discussing Italy under Mussolini and Italians’ seeming amnesia about the country’s Fascist past. On which points do they agree? Why do they find the current state of affairs unsettling? Are there parallels in recent American history?
5. How does Claudia describe the circumstances of her grandfather’s prosecution and conviction? What is she seeking from Brunetti? What is her ultimate goal, and who is its main beneficiary?
6. Brunetti “sometimes thought of Count Orazio Falier as Orazio the Oracle” (p. 44). What kind of man is Brunetti’s father-in-law? What is the nature of their relationship, and in what ways does Brunetti rely on him?
7. How does Count Orazio characterize Claudia’s grandfather, Luca Guzzardi? What was Guzzardi’s job during the war? What lead to his arrest?
8. “Just like the French, we couldn’t forget what happened during the war years fast enough,” Count Orazio tells Brunetti (p. 53). How does that compare to the German response, in the Count’s opinion, and why? Do you agree?
9. Paola despairs that her students “think . . . that their culture, with its noise and acquisitiveness and immediate forgettability is superior to all of our stupid ideas,” including Plato and Dante (p. 60). Is her view another instance of a person from an older generation decrying the follies of youngsters, or is she describing a seismic shift brought about, in part, by technology?
10. Lele Bortoluzzi is invaluable as a source of information about the Venice art scene. What is his opinion of the Guzzardi family and of their business during the war? How widespread were the types of practices the Guzzardis engaged in?
11. What does Brunetti learn about Lele’s, and his father-in-law’s, activities during the war? Why is the wartime generation reluctant to speak about that period of their lives, even if they acted nobly?
12. “Reliable, honest, clever” is how Brunetti describes Vianello, his longtime colleague who finally receives a much-deserved promotion to ispettore (p. 77). Given the politics of the Questura, why is their relationship so important to Brunetti? How does he protect it?
13. What does Brunetti observe inside Signora Jacobs’s home? How does the condition of the apartment compare with the condition of its tenant? Why does Signora Jacobs send Brunetti away?
14. When Brunetti begins to examine Claudia Leonardo’s bank statements, he discovers surprisingly large transfers from a bank in Geneva—and a drained account. What is Paola’s guess as to how Claudia spent the money, and why?
15. “People are far more willing to profit from a crime than to commit it,” Lele tells Brunetti (p. 133). Do you agree, and why or why not? 16. What is the reputation of Notaio Filipetto? How does Brunetti establish a rapport with him when he visits his home, and how does Filipetto behave when questioned?
17. The reluctance of even his most trusted sources to discuss certain matters leads Brunetti to wonder “if suspicion were now a genetic trait peculiar to Italians” (p. 157). What, if any, social or cultural factors might contribute to or encourage this trait?
18. When Marco phones Brunetti after assaulting his architect, how does the commissario come to his friend’s aid, and why? Are his actions an abuse of his power, a way to achieve justice, or both?
19. Signora Jacobs insists to Brunetti that Guzzardi had legal rights to all of the paintings—and that claims to his property after the war were “all lies” (p. 198). But legal systems and processes are often compromised during wartime and in wars’ immediate aftermath. Do Guzzardi’s legal rights stand up post-war? Does his conviction?
20. Whose idea was it to try to clear Luca Guzzardi’s name, and why? What becomes of the paintings, drawings, and ceramics he left to Signora Jacobs?