A Sea of Troubles
A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mysteryby Donna Leon
“Brunetti’s humane police work is disarming, and his ambles through the city are a delight.” —The New York Times Book Review
Donna Leon has amassed devoted fans around the world for her atmospheric and intelligent Commissario Brunetti series. A Sea of Troubles offers a rare glimpse into the scrupulous Commissario’s personal life. When Brunetti investigates the murder of two local fishermen on the island of Pellestrina, the small community closes ranks, forcing him to accept Signorina Elettra’s offer to visit her relatives there to search for clues. Though loyal to his beloved wife, Paola, he must admit that less-than-platonic emotions underlie his concern for his boss’s beautiful secretary. Suspenseful, provocative, and deeply unsettling, A Sea of Troubles is an explosive and irresistible addition to Leon’s marvelous series.
“Clever, vivid, and wholly absorbing.” —The Observer (London)
“Brunetti’s humane police work is disarming, and his ambles through the city are a delight.” —The New York Times Book Review
“No one is more graceful and accomplished than Leon.” —The Washington Post
“Brunetti . . . is the most humane sleuth since Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret. . . . He is a decent man [who achieves] a quiet heroism.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
Pellestrina is a long, narrow peninsula of sand that has, over the course of the centuries, been turned into habitable ground. Running north and south from San Pietro in Volta to Ca’ Roman, Pellestrina is about ten kilometres long, but never more than a couple of hundred metres wide. To the east, it faces the Adriatic, a sea not known for the sweetness of its temper, but the west side rests in the Lagoon of Venice and is thus protected from wind, storm and wave. The earth is sandy and infertile, so the people of Pellestrina, though they sow, are able to reap little. This makes small difference to them; indeed, most of them would no doubt scoff at the very idea of earning a living, however rich, from the earth, for the people of Pellestrina have always taken theirs from the sea.
Many stories are told about the men of Pellestrina, the endurance and strength that have been forced upon them in their attempt to wrest a living from the sea.
Old people in Venice remember a time when the men of Pellestrina were said to spend the nights, winter or summer, sleeping on the dirt floors of their cottages instead of in their beds so as to more easily push themselves out into the early morning and make the tide that would carry them into the Adriatic and thus to the fish. Like most stories that are told about how much tougher people were in the olden days, this is probably apocryphal. What is true, however, is the fact that most people who hear it, if they are Venetian, believe it, just as they would believe any tale that spoke of the toughness of the men of Pellestrina or of their indifference to pain or suffering, their own or that of others.
During the summer Pellestrina comes alive, as tourists arrive from Venice and its Lido or across from Chioggia on the mainland to eat fresh seafood and drink the crisp white wine, just short of sparkling, that is served in the bars and restaurants. Instead of bread, they are served bussolai, hard oval pretzels whose name, perhaps, comes from the bussola, or compass, that has the same shape. Along with the bussolai there is fish, often so fresh it was still alive when the tourists set out to make the long and inconvenient trip to Pellestrina. As the tourists pulled themselves from their hotel beds, the gills of the orate still fought against the alien element, the air; as the tourists filed on to an early morning vaporetto at Rialto, the sardelle still thrashed in the nets; as they climbed down from the vaporetto and crossed Piazzale Santa Maria Elisabetta, looking for the bus that would take them to Malamocco and the Alberoni, the cefalo was just being hauled out of the sea. The tourists often leave the bus for a while at Malamocco or the Alberoni, have a coffee, then walk on the sandy beach for a while and look at the enormous jetties that stretch out into the waters of the Adriatic in an attempt to prevent the waters from sweeping into the laguna.
The fish are all dead by then, though the tourists could not be expected to know that, or much care, so they get back on the bus, sit in it for the short ferry ride across the narrow canal, then continue by bus or on foot down toward Pellestrina and their lunch.
In winter things are vastly different. Too often the wind tears across the Adriatic from the former Yugoslavia, carrying before it rain or light snow, biting into the bones of anyone who tries to stay out in it for any length of time. The crowded restaurants of the summer are closed and will remain that way until late spring, leaving the tourists to fend for and feed themselves.
What remain unchanged, lined up in long rows on the inner side of the thin peninsula, are scores of vongolari, the clam-fishing boats that work all year, regardless of tourists, rain, cold and heat, regardless too of all the legends told about the noble, hard-working men of Pellestrina and their constant battle to win a living for their wives and children from the merciless sea. Their names sing out: Concordia, Serena, Assunta. They sit there, fat and high-nosed, looking very much like the boats painted in picture books for children. One longs, walking past in the bright summer sun, to reach up and pat them, stroke their noses, as it were, just as one would with a particularly winsome pony or an especially endearing Labrador.
To the unschooled eye the boats all look much the same, with their iron masts and the metal scoop at the prow that protrudes up into the air when the boat is docked. Rectangular and framed, these scoops all have the same grade of what looks like chicken wire strung across them, though it is far stronger than any chicken wire ever made, as it has to resist the pressure of rocks dug up on the seabed or chance encounters with the heavy and unforeseen obstacles that litter the bottom of the laguna. They also have, of course, to resist the seabed itself as they ram into and then under the nesting clams, dragging along the sea bottom and then to the surface kilos of shells, large and small, trapped within the rectangular tray, water and sand cascading out and back into the laguna.
The observable differences between the boats are insignificant: a clam scoop smaller or larger than that on the next boat; life buoys in need of paint or shining bright and smooth; decks so clean they gleam in the sunlight or stained with rust in the corners, where they touch the sides of the boat. The Pellestrina boats, during the day, ride in pleasant promiscuity one beside the next; their owners live in similar propinquity in the low houses that stretch from one side of the village to the other, from the laguna to the sea.
At about 3.30 on a morning in early May, a small fire broke out in the cabin of one of these boats, the Squallus, owned and captained by Giulio Bottin, resident at number 242 Via Santa Giustina. The men of Pellestrina are no longer solely dependent upon the power of the tides and winds and thus are no longer obliged to sail only when they are favourable, but the habits of centuries die hard, and so most fishermen rise and sail at dawn, as if the early morning breezes still made some difference to their speed. There remained two hours before the fishermen of Pellestrina—who now sleep in their homes and in their beds—had to get up, so they were at their deepest point of sleep when the fire broke out on the Squallus. The flames moved, at quite a leisurely pace, along the floor of the boat’s cabin to the wooden sides and the teak control panel at the front. Teak, a hard wood, burns slowly, but it also burns at a higher temperature than softer woods, and so the fire that spread up the control panel and from it to the roof of the cabin and out on to the deck moved with frightening speed once it reached those softer woods. The fire burned a hole in the deck of the cabin, and burning pieces of wood fell below into the engine room where one fell on to a pile of oil-damp rags, which flared instantly into life and passed the fire gracefully towards the fuel line.
Slowly, the fire worked at the area around the narrow tube; slowly it burned away the surrounding wood and then, as the wood turned to ash and fell away, a small piece of solder melted, opening a gap that allowed the flame to enter the pipe and move with blinding speed down towards the engines and to the dual fuel tanks which supplied them.
None of the people sleeping in Pellestrina that night had any idea of the motion of the flames, but all of them were rocked awake when the fuel tanks on the Squallus exploded, filling the night air with a glaring burst of light and, seconds later, with a thud so loud that, the next day, people as far away as Chioggia claimed they heard it.
Fire is terrifying anywhere, but for some reason it seems more so at sea or, at least, on the water. The first people who looked out of their bedroom windows said later that they saw the boat shrouded in heavy, oily smoke that rose up as the fire was extinguished by the water. But by then the flames had had time to slip through the Squallus to the boats moored on either side of it and set them smouldering, and the exploding fuel had splashed in deadly arcs, not only to the decks of the boats moored beside it, but out on to the levee in front, where it set three wooden benches ablaze.
After the blast from the Squallus’s fuel tanks, there followed a moment of stunned silence, then Pellestrina exploded into noise and action. Doors flew open and men ran out into the night; some of them wore trousers pulled on over pyjamas, some wore only pyjamas, some had taken the time to dress, two were entirely naked, though no one paid any attention to that fact, so urgent was the need to save the boats. The owners of the boats moored alongside the Squallus jumped from the dock on to the decks at almost the same instant, though one had had to pull himself from the bed of his cousin’s wife and had come twice as far as the other. Both of them yanked fire extinguishers from their stanchions on the deck and began to spray at the flames that had followed the burning oil.
The owners of boats moored further from the now empty space where the Squallus had once floated churned their engines to life and began frantically backing away from the burning boats. One of them, in his panic, forgot to cast off the mooring rope and yanked a metre-long strip of wood from the railing of his boat. But even as he looked back and saw the splintered wood floating where he had been moored, he didn’t stop until his boat was a hundred metres from land and safe from the flames.
As he watched, those flames gradually lessened on the decks of the other boats. Two more men, each carrying a fire extinguisher, arrived from the nearby houses. Jumping on to the deck of one of the boats, they began spraying the flames, which were quickly controlled and then finally quelled. At about the same time the owner of the other boat, which had not been as heavily sprayed with fuel, managed to get the flames under control and then extinguished them with the thick white froth. Long after there was no more sign of fire, he continued spraying back and forth, back and forth, until the froth was gone and he lowered the empty fire extinguisher to the deck.
By then, more than a hundred people were clustered along the levee, shouting to the men on the boats that had managed to back out into the harbour, to one another, and to the men who had conquered the flames on their boats. Expressions of shock and concern flew from every lip, anxious questions about what had been seen, what could have started the fire.
The first to ask the question that was to silence them all, the silence slowly rippling out from her like infection from an uncleaned wound, was Chiara Petulli, the next-door neighbour of Giulio Bottin. She was standing at the front of the crowd, not more than two metres from the large metal stanchion from which dangled the scorched cable that had once held the Squallus safely in place. She turned to the woman next to her, the widow of a fisherman who had died in an accident only the year before, and asked, “Where’s Giulio?”
The widow looked around. She repeated the question. The person next to her picked it up and passed it on until, in a matter of moments the question had been passed through the entire crowd, asked but not answered.
“And Marco?” Chiara Petulli added. This time everyone heard her question. Though his boat lay in the shallow waters, its scorched masts just breaking the surface, Giulio Bottin was not there, nor was his son Marco, eighteen years old and already part owner of the Squallus, which lay burnt and dead at the bottom of the harbour of Pellestrina on this suddenly chill springtime morning.
1. What kind of place is Pellestrina? How has the village been shaped by its geography? What kind of reputation do its residents enjoy among Venetians, and why?
2. Why does Brunetti tell the waiter he won’t need a receipt for his lunch? What other methods do he and Vianello use to try to extract information, and are they successful?
3. Brunetti’s relationship with Signorina Elettra is rather unconventional. What is the dynamic of their interactions at the Questura? What accounts for their mutual admiration?
5.Why does Montisi have such a low opinion of the vongolari? What sorts of dangers come with eating clams, and why does Montisi believe it’s pointless to try to warn others?
6. What is Brunetti’s opinion of his boss, Vice-Questore Patta? Consider Brunetti’s skill at leading Patta to his desired outcome during their meetings. Is it comparable to Elettra’s skill at getting her way with Brunetti?
7. “People are going to do what they want, no matter what you tell them and now matter how bad they know it is for them. Nothing can stop them; not fear or law or promises,” the tobacco shop proprietor tells Brunetti, echoing Montisi’s sentments (p. 87). Do you agree? Is there anything that does motivate people to act against their basic desires?
8. How do the residents of Pellestrina seem to feel about the Bottins? Why are they reluctant to even appear to cooperate with the police?
9. What’s Brunetti’s initial impression of Signora Follini? How does Signora Follini behave towards Brunetti when he first meets her, and how does her manner change on subsequent contact?
10. “It’s odd that people like that, so bright, should be working for the police,” Paola tells Brunetti in a candid moment (p. 102). What shapes Paola’s low opinion of her husband’s profession? What is Brunetti’s assessment?
11. What distinguishes Carlo from the rest of the Pellestrina bar regulars, and what about him is attractive to Elettra? How is he treated by the rest of the fishermen, and why?
12. After several fruitless attempts to interview the locals, Brunetti finally lucks into “every policeman’s dream: the watchful neighbor” (p. 147). What kind of person is this eager informant? What motivates her to cooperate with the police, and how does Brunetti feel about her help?
13. What does Elettra’s contact at the Guardia di Finanza reveal about Vittorio Spadini’s case? What led to the Guardia di Finanza’s investigation, and what did kind of impression did Spadini leave on the investigators?
14. “Men deceive themselves about what they do themselves, but women choose to deceive themselves about what other people do,” Paola tells Brunetti during an argument about the quality of his interest in Elettra (p. 180-181). Do you agree with her observation in this particular case, or in general?
15. On whom does Brunetti call for the favor of finding out why Carlo Targhetta left the Guardia di Finanza, and what are his reservations about each informant?
16. What does Brunetti ultimately learn about Targhetta? Why did Targhetta act the way he did? Is Targhetta’s breach—while clearly illegal—different from the sometimes unofficial methods Brunetti and Elettra use during investigations? How do you think Elettra would respond if she knew what Targhetta had done?
17. Why was Targhetta in the dark about his uncle’s revenge on Bottin? How did Spadini learn where Elettra worked and that Brunetti knew about the Bottin’s denuncia?
18. Which convictions does Brunetti think are possible against Spadini, and which of the crimes does he think will remain officially unsolved? Who does he remain most worried about, and what does Paola advise?