Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Acqua Alta

A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery

by Donna Leon

“Smuggling, sexual betrayal, high-class fakery and, of course, mafia money make for a rich brew.” —Sunday Times (London)

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 320
  • Publication Date March 12, 2013
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2028-1
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $17.00

About The Book

As Venice braces for a winter tempest, Commissario Guido Brunetti, Donna Leon’s intrepid Italian sleuth, finds out that an old friend has been savagely beaten at the palazzo home of reigning diva Flavia Petrelli. Then, as the flood waters rise, a corpse is discovered—and Brunetti must wade through the chaotic city to solve his deadliest case yet. Sinister and exotic, Acqua Alta is another chilling addition to Donna Leon’s best-selling series.


“Smuggling, sexual betrayal, high-class fakery and, of course, Mafia money make for a rich brew.” —The Sunday Times (London)

“An evocative peep into the dark underworld of the beauteous city.” —Time Out

“In Leon’s Guido Brunetti mysteries, Venice becomes more than setting, more than metaphor. Place and character meld to produce an atmosphere that teems with life beneath the surface, corruption permeating human activity as vermin infest the canals.” —Booklist

“A subtle study of emotion and character ” A sophisticated mystery.” —Library Journal

“Leon has once again created a high-stakes mystery in which the setting vibrates with as much life as the story itself.” —Publishers Weekly


Domestic tranquility prevailed. Flavia Petrelli, the reigning diva of La Scala, stood in the warm kitchen and chopped onions. In separate heaps in front of her lay a pile of plum tomatoes, two cloves of garlic chopped into fine slices, and two plump-bottomed aubergines. She stood at the marble counter, bent over the vegetables, and she sang, filling the room with the golden tones of her soprano voice. Occasionally, she pushed at a lock of dark hair with the back of her wrist, but it was no sooner anchored behind her ear than it sprang loose and fell across her cheek.

At the other end of the vast room that took up much of the top floor of the fourteenth-century Venetian palazzo, its owner and Flavia’s lover, Brett Lynch, sprawled across a beige sofa, bare feet propped against the far arm, head resting on the other, following the score of I Puritani, the music of which blared out, neighbours be damned, from two tall speakers resting on mahogany pedestals.

Music swelled up to fill the room, and the singing Elvira prepared to go mad—for the second time. Eerily, two Elviras sang in the room: the first the one Flavia had recorded in London five months before and who now sang from the speakers; the second was the voice of the woman chopping the onions.

Occasionally, as she sang in perfect union with her own recorded voice, Flavia broke off to ask, “Ouf, whoever said I had a middle register?” or “Is that a B flat the violins are supposed to be playing?” After each interruption, her voice returned to the music, her hands to the chopping. To her left, a large frying-pan sat on a low flame, a pool of olive oil waiting for the first vegetables.

From four floors below, the doorbell rang. “I’ll get it,” Brett said, placing the score face down on the floor and standing. “Probably the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They come on Sundays.” Flavia nodded, brushed a strand of dark hair from her face with the back of her hand, and returned her attention to the onions and to Elvira’s delirium, in the midst of which she continued to sing.

Barefoot, glad of the warmth of the apartment on this late January afternoon, Brett walked across the beamed floor and out into the entrance hall, picked up the speakerphone that hung beside the front door, and asked, “Chi?”

A man’s voice answered, speaking Italian, “We’re from the museum. With papers from Dottor Semenzato.”

Strange that the director of the museum at the Doge’s Palace would send papers, especially on a Sunday, but perhaps he had been alarmed by the letter Brett had sent him from China—though he certainly hadn’t sounded that way earlier in the week—and wanted something read before the appointment he had grudgingly given for Tuesday morning.

“Bring them up, if you don’t mind. Top floor.” Brett replaced the phone and pressed the button that opened the door four floors down, then walked to the door and called to Flavia across the weeping violins, “Someone from the museum. Papers.”

Flavia nodded, picked up the first of the aubergines and sliced it in half, then, without missing a beat, returned to the serious business of losing her mind for love.

Brett went back towards the front door, paused to bend down and turn over the corner of a carpet, then opened the door to the apartment. Footsteps approached from below, and two men came into sight, pausing at the bottom of the final ramp of steps. “There are only sixteen more,” Brett said, smiling down at them in welcome, then, suddenly aware of the frigid air of the stairwell that edged in, covered one bare foot with the other.

They stood on the steps below and looked up towards the open door. The first one carried a large manila envelope. They paused for a moment before beginning the final flight and Brett smiled again, calling down encouragement: “Forza.”

The first one, short and fair-haired, smiled back and started up the last flight of steps. His companion, taller and darker, took a deep breath, then came up behind him. When the first man got to the door, he paused and waited for the other to join him.

“Dottoressa Lynch?” the blond one asked, pronouncing her last name in the Italian fashion.

“Yes,” she answered, stepping back from the door to allow them to enter.

Politely, both of them muttered, “Permesso,” as they stepped into the apartment. The first one, whose light hair was cut very close to his head and who had attractive dark eyes, held out the envelope. “These are the papers, Dottoressa.” As he handed them to her, he said, “Dottor Semenzato asked that you look at them immediately.” Very soft, very polite. The tall one smiled and turned away, his attention distracted by a mirror that hung to the left of the door.

She bent her head and began to open the flap of the envelope, which was held together with red sealing wax. The blond man stepped a bit closer to her, as if to take the envelope from her and help her open it, but suddenly he moved past her and grabbed her from behind by both arms, his grip fierce and tight.

The envelope fell, bounced off her bare feet, and landed between her and the second man. He brushed it aside with his foot, as if careful of its contents, and stepped up close in front of her. As he moved, the other one tightened his grip on her arms. The tall one brought his face down from his considerable height and said, voice low and very deep, “You don’t want to keep that appointment with Dottor Semenzato.”

She felt anger before she felt fear, and she spoke out of the first. “Let me go. And get out of here.” She twisted sharply in an attempt to pull herself free of the man’s grip, but he tightened his hands, pinning her arms to her sides.

Behind her, the music soared up and Flavia’s double voice filled the room. So perfectly did she sing the passage that no one could tell there were two voices, not one, that sang of pain and love and loss. Brett turned her face towards the music, but then by a conscious act of will stopped the motion and asked, turning back to the man in front of her, “Who are you? What do you want?”

His voice changed as did his face, both growing ugly. “Don’t ask questions, bitch.”

Again, she tried to twist herself free, but it was impossible. Bracing her weight on one foot, she kicked backward with the other, but her bare heel had no effect on the man who held her.

From behind her, she heard the one who held her say, “All right. Do it.”

She was turning her head to look at him when the first blow came, catching her in the centre of the stomach. The sudden, explosive pain pulled her forward with such force that she almost broke free from the man who held her, but he pulled her back and jerked her upright. The one in front of her hit her again, this time catching her below the left breast, and her response was the same, an involuntary motion that pulled her body forward to protect itself from this awful pain.

Then quickly, so quickly that she lost count of how many times he did it, he began to punch at her body, catching her repeatedly on the breast and ribs.

Behind her, Flavia’s voices sang now of the blissful future she looked forward to, so soon to be Arturo’s bride, and then he hit her on the side of the head. Her right ear buzzed, and then she could hear the music only with the left.

She was conscious of just one thing: she couldn’t make any noise. She couldn’t scream, cry out, moan. The soprano voices blended behind her, exultant with joy, and her lip split open under the man’s fist.

The one behind her released her right arm. There was no longer any need to restrain her, but he kept one hand on her arm to hold her upright and pulled her around until she was facing him. “Don’t keep your meeting with Dottor Semenzato,” he said, voice still very low and polite.

But she was gone from him, no longer listening to what he said, dimly conscious of the music and the pain, and the dark fear that these men might kill her.

Her head hung and she saw only their feet. She sensed the taller one make a sudden motion towards her, and she felt warmth on her legs and face. She had lost control of her body and smelled the sharp stench of her own urine. Tasting blood, she saw it drip on to the floor and splash on to their shoes. She hung between them, thinking only that she couldn’t make a sound and wishing only that they would let her drop, let her roll herself up into a ball to reduce the pain that came at her from all over her body. And all the while this was happening, the double voice of Flavia Petrelli filled the room with the sounds of joy, soaring up over the voices of the chorus and the tenor, her sweet lover.

With greater effort than she had applied to anything in her life, Brett raised her head and looked into the eyes of the tall one, who now stood directly in front of her. He smiled back at her with a smile so intimate that she might have seen it on a lover’s face. Slowly, he reached out and cupped her left breast in his hand, squeezing it gently, and he whispered, “Want some more, cara? It’s better with a man.”

Her reaction was entirely involuntary. Her fist caught his face and glanced off without doing any harm, but the sudden motion pulled her free of the hand of the other one. She fell back against the wall and was conscious, in a disembodied way, of its solidity under her back.

She felt herself sinking down, felt her sweater being pulled up by the heavy grain of the brick wall behind her. Slowly, slowly, as in a freeze-frame film, she sank down against the wall, its rough face scratching at her flesh as gravity pulled at her entire body.

Things grew very confused. She heard Flavia’s voice singing the cabaletta, but then she heard Flavia’s other voice, no longer singing, scream in fury, “Who are you? What are you doing?”

“Don’t stop singing, Flavia,” she tried to say, but she couldn’t remember how to say it. She sank to the floor, head tilted towards the entry to the living room, where she saw the real Flavia outlined against the light that streamed in from the other room, heard the same outline of glorious music that splashed in with her, and she saw the large chopping knife in Flavia’s hand.

“No, Flavia,” she whispered, but no one heard her.

Flavia launched herself across the space that separated her from the two men. As surprised as she, they had no time to react, and the knife slashed across the upraised forearm of the shorter one. He howled in pain and pulled the arm to him, covering the wound with his other hand. Blood surged up through the fabric of his jacket.

Another freeze frame. Then the taller man started towards the still-open door. Flavia pulled the knife back level with her hip and took two steps towards him. The wounded one kicked at her with his left foot, catching her on the side of the knee. She fell but landed kneeling, knife still pulled back beside her.

Whatever communication passed between the two men was entirely silent, but at the same instant they both broke towards the door. The tall one paused long enough to snatch at the envelope, but the kneeling Flavia lashed out at his hand with the knife, and he backed away, leaving it on the floor. Flavia pushed herself to her feet and ran down a few steps after them but stopped and went back into the apartment, kicking the door closed behind her.

She knelt beside the supine form of the other woman. “Brett, Brett,” she called, looking down at her. The bottom half of her face was streaked with blood that streamed from her nose and lip and from a patch of broken skin that ran across the left side of her forehead. She lay with one knee bent under her, her sweater bunched up under her chin, breasts exposed. “Brett,” Flavia said again and for a moment believed that this utterly motionless woman was dead. She pushed that idea away immediately and placed her hand against the side of Brett’s throat.

As slowly as dawn on a heavy winter morning, one eye opened, then the other, though, beginning to swell, it could open only halfway.

Stai bene?” Flavia asked.

The only answer she heard was a low moan. But it was an answer.

“I’m going to call for help. Don’t worry, cara. They’ll be here soon.”

She ran into the other room and reached for the telephone. For a second, she didn’t recognize what it was that prevented her from picking up the phone, but then she saw the bloody knife, her hand white-knuckled around the handle. She dropped it to the floor and grabbed the receiver. With stiff fingers, she jabbed out 113. After ten rings, a woman’s voice answered and asked her what she wanted.

“This is an emergency. I need an ambulance. In Cannaregio.”

Bored, the voice asked the exact address.

“Cannaregio 6134.”

“I’m sorry, signora. It’s Sunday and we have only one ambulance. I’ll have to put your name on the list.”

Flavia’s voice rose. “There’s a woman here who’s hurt. Someone tried to kill her. She has to get to the hospital.”

The voice took on a tone of wearied patience. “I’ve explained to you, signora. We have only one ambulance, and there are two calls for it to make first. As soon as it’s free, we’ll send it to you.” When she had no response from Flavia, the voice asked, “Signora, are you still there? If you give me the address again, I’ll put your name on the list. Signora? Signora?” In response to Flavia’s silence, the woman at the other end broke the connection, leaving Flavia with the receiver in her hand, wishing she still had the knife.

Hand trembling, Flavia replaced the receiver and went back into the hall. Brett remained where she had left her but had somehow managed to turn over on to her side and lay still, holding one arm across her chest, moaning.

Flavia knelt beside her. “Brett, I have to get a doctor.”

Flavia heard a muffled noise, and Brett’s hand came slowly towards her own. Her fingers barely made contact with Flavia’s arm, then fell to the floor. “Cold,” was the only thing she said.

Flavia got to her feet and went into the bedroom. She ripped the covers from the bed and dragged them back into the foyer, where she spread them over the motionless form on the floor. She opened the door to the apartment, not bothering to check through the spy-hole to see if the two men had returned. Leaving the door open behind her, she ran down two flights of stairs and pounded heavily on the door of the apartment below.

After a few moments, the door was opened by a middle-aged man, tall and balding, who held a cigarette in one hand and a book in the other. “Luca,” Flavia gasped, fighting the impulse to scream as this went on and on and no one came to help her lover, “Brett’s hurt. She’s got to have a doctor.” Suddenly her voice cracked and she was sobbing. “Please, Luca, please, get a doctor.” She grabbed at his arm, no longer capable of speech.

Without a word, he stepped back into his apartment and grabbed his keys from a table beside the door. He dropped the book on the floor, pulled the door closed behind him, and disappeared down the steps before Flavia could say anything else.

Flavia went up the steps two at a time and back into the apartment. She looked down and saw that a small pool of blood now spread out under Brett’s face, a strand floating on the surface. Years ago, she had read or been told that people in shock should be kept awake, that it was dangerous for them to go to sleep. So she knelt again beside her friend and called her name. By now, one eye was swollen shut, but at the sound of her name, the American opened the other just a slit and looked at Flavia without giving any sign that she recognized her.

“Luca went. The doctor will be here in a minute.”

Slowly, the eye seemed to go out of focus, then pulled itself back to look at her. Flavia crouched lower. She wiped Brett’s hair back from her face, feeling the blood trail across her fingers. “It’s going to be all right. They’ll be back in a minute, and you’ll be all right. Everything’s going to be all right, darling. Don’t worry.”

The eye closed, opened, drifted into long focus, then came back. “Hurt,” she whispered.

“It’s all right, Brett. It’s going to be all right.”


Flavia knelt by her friend, gazing into the one eye, willing it to stay open and in focus, and she continued to mutter things that, in future, she never remembered having said. Some time later, she began to weep, but she was not aware of this.

She saw Brett’s hand, half hidden by the covers, and she grabbed at it, held it softly, as though it were made of the same down as the covers around it. “It’s going to be all right, Brett.”

Suddenly, from below, she heard the sound of footsteps and raised voices. For an instant, it occurred to her that this might be the two men, come back to finish whatever it was they had come to do. She got to her feet and went to the door, hoping to be able to close it in time, but when she looked, she saw Luca’s face and, behind him, a man in a white jacket with a black bag in his hand.

“Thank God,” she said and was surprised to find that she meant it. Behind her, the music stopped. Elvira was at last reunited with her Arturo, and the opera was at an end.

Reading Group Guide

1. How do two violent intruders gain access to Brett and Flavia’s apartment? How much do they appear to know about Brett, personally and professionally? What seems to be the reason for their visit, and do they succeed?

2. Why does Brunetti stop by to see Brett in the hospital when her case has been assigned to another team? What, besides his evident concern for Brett, leads Flavia to feel warmer toward the Commissario?

3. What is Brett’s specialty, and how has she been of service to the city of Venice? Who has she worked with most closely, and what does Brunetti know about this person?

4. What are bustarelle, which Flavia has arranged to be “delivered into the proper hands?” (p. 28). Why are they necessary? What does this custom signal about Italian public services in particular and Italian society in general?

5. What is Vice-Questore Patta’s initial reaction when he learns that Brunetti has visited Brett Lynch in the hospital, and what is behind this attitude? What inspires his sudden, and complete, change of heart?

6. To begin the investigation, Brunetti calls on an old family friend, Lele. What about Lele’s background makes him particularly useful as a police source? What does Lele mean when he says that the Doge’s Palace Museum Director Semenzato’s “eyes are for sale”? (p. 46).

7. “At times, Brunetti felt that Venice had been turned into a whore forced to choose between two different johns’ (p. 45). What inspires such a negative reaction? Do you agree with this sentiment?

8. Why was Brett only able to see the artifacts from the major Chinese art exhibit five years after they had been packed in Venice by her assistant? What did she discover when she was finally able to examine them, and why is she so gravely concerned?

9. “Non-Venetians thought of it as a city; residents knew it was just a sleepy little country town” (p. 96). In what ways is Venice cosmopolitan, and in what ways is it provincial? How does Brunetti’s work put him the perfect position to observe both of these aspects?

10. Brett’s assistant’s seemingly accidental death takes place soon after Brett alerts Semenzato to the problems with a few of the artifacts that have been returned to China. What is the other connection between Semenzato and the assistant, and why is it significant? What else does Brett reveal to Brunetti when Flavia is out of earshot?

11. In what capacity did Semenzato work with Francesco Murino? How does Murino behave when Brunetti pays him a visit at his shop?

12. Brett despairs at what she believes to be the inevitable end to her distinguished career, but Brunetti proposes a simple way out. What is it, and why is it much more acceptable to the Italians than to the Americans?

13. What, besides the deflated cost of labor, does Brunetti find interesting about the renovation of La Capra’s palazzo? How is he able to learn this “privileged information”?

14. Under what pretense does Brunetti pay a visit to La Capra, and what is he able to learn? What topics appear to be off-limits with La Capra?

15. How is Brett lured out of her apartment, and what does she leave behind? What does La Capra wish to discuss with her, and why is it important for him to have the chance to do so? How does Brett use this need to her advantage?

16. Salvatore La Capra is both afraid and resentful of his father, a dangerous mixture that only amplifies his cruelty. What does he think of his father’s collection? Why is he eager to carry out his father’s orders? How does his death ultimately serve his father, too?

17. Why is Brunetti bothered by the fact that Brett broke one of La Capra’s ceramic bowls, and what does he assume had to be true? Does Flavia’s de-facto dismissal of his question confirm or deny his assumption?