Death and Judgment

A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery. Published previously in the United Kingdom as A Venetian Reckoning.

by Donna Leon

“[Brunetti’s] most difficult and politically sensitive case to date . . . complex and filled with charm, humor, and intelligence.” —Booklist

  • Page Count 320
  • Publication Date March 25, 2014
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2218-6
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $17.00

About The Book

In Death and Judgment, a truck crashes and spills its dangerous cargo on a treacherous road in the Italian Dolomite mountains. Meanwhile, in Santa Lucia, a prominent international lawyer is found dead aboard an intercity train. Suspecting a connection between the two tragedies, Brunetti digs deep for an answer, stumbling upon a seedy Venetian bar that holds the key to a crime network that reaches far beyond the laguna. But it will take another violent death in Venice before Brunetti and his colleagues begin to understand what is really going on.


“No one is more graceful and accomplished than Leon.” —Washington Post

“The sophisticated but still moral Brunetti, with his love of food and his loving family, proves a worthy custodian of timeless values and verities.” —Wall Street Journal

“[Brunetti’s] humane police work is disarming, and his ambles through the city are a delight.” —The New York Times Book Review


On the last Tuesday in September, snow fell for the first time in the mountains separating northern Italy from Austria, more than a month before it could ordinarily be expected. The storm arrived suddenly, carried by fat clouds that swept in from nowhere and with no warning. Within half an hour, the roads of the pass above Tarvisio were slick and deadly. No rain had fallen for a month, and so the first snow lay upon roads already covered with a glistening layer of oil and grease.

The combination proved deadly to a sixteen-wheeled truck bearing Romanian license plates and carrying a cargo manifest for ninety cubic meters of pine boards. Just north of Tarvisio, on a curve that led down to the entrance to the autostrada and thus into the warmer, safer roads of Italy, the driver braked too hard on a curve and lost control of the immense vehicle, which plunged off the road moving at fifty kilometers an hour.

The wheels gouged out huge trenches in the not yet frozen earth, while the body of the truck caromed off trees, snapping them and hurling them about in a long swath that led to the bottom of the gully, where the truck finally smacked into the rock face of a mountain, smashing open and scattering its cargo in a wide arc.

The first men on the scene, drivers of other heavy-transport trucks who stopped without thinking to help one of their own, went first to the cabin of the truck; but there was no hope for the driver, who hung in his seat belt, half-suspended from the cabin, one side of his head battered in by the branch that had ripped off the driver’s door as the truck careened down the slope. The driver of a load of pigs being brought down to Italy for slaughter climbed over what remained of the hood of the truck, peering through the shattered windshield to see if there was another driver. The seat was empty, and so the searchers, who had by then gathered, began to look for the other driver, thrown free of the truck.

Four drivers of trucks of varying sizes began to stumble down the hill, leaving a fifth up on the roadway to set out warning flares and use his radio to summon the polizia stradale. Snow still fell heavily, so it was some time before one of them spotted the twisted body that could be seen a third of the way down the slope. Two of them ran toward it, they too hoping that at least one of the drivers had survived the accident.

Slipping, occasionally falling to their knees in their haste, the men struggled in the snow that the truck had crashed through so effortlessly. The first man knelt beside the motionless form and began to brush at the thin layer of white that covered the supine figure, hoping to find him still breathing. But then his fingers caught in the long hair, and when he brushed the snow away from the face, he exposed the unmistakably delicate bones of a woman.

He heard another driver cry out from below him. Turning in the still falling snow, he looked back and saw the other man kneeling over something that lay a few meters to the left of the scar torn by the truck as it had plunged down the hill.

“What is it?” he called, placing his fingers softly against her neck to feel for life in the oddly positioned figure.

“It’s a woman,” the second one cried. And then, just as he felt the absolute stillness of the throat of the woman below him, the other called up to him, “She’s dead.”

Later, the first driver to explore behind the truck said that he thought, when he first saw them, that the truck must have been carrying a cargo of mannequins, you know, those plastic women they dress up and put in the windows of shops. There they were, at least a half dozen of them, lying scattered over the snow behind the shattered rear doors of the truck. One even seemed to have gotten caught in the lumber that had been tossed about inside the truck and lay there, half-hanging from the back platform, legs pinned down by stacks of boards so securely wrapped that the impact of the truck against the mountain had not been sufficient to break them open. But why would mannequins be dressed in overcoats, he remembered wondering. And why that red in the snow all around them?

Reading Group Guide

1. The novel opens with a scene of an accident, as a Romanian truck crashes near the Austro-Italian border. What are the press speculations about the truck’s contraband human cargo? Consider why the investigation into the deaths of the passengers fades without resolution. Who has a stake in solving, or covering up, this incident? What is Leon suggesting when she writes that the victims’ bodies, once returned to Romania, were buried “under the even greater weight of its bureaucracy”? (p. 8).

2. As Brunetti begins to investigate the murder of Avvocato Carlo Trevisan, Vice-Questore Patta characteristically warns him to “handle it in the proper fashion” (p. 23). Trevisan’s social and political prominence seems, on the one hand, to lend the investigation urgency. But how does it also handicap police work? Consider which questions (and lines of inquiry) Patta considers “improper,” and how Brunetti approaches those subjects.

3. When Brunetti goes to see Dottoressa Zorzi to learn more about Trevisan’s family, she shares some information but won’t discuss details she considers irrelevant. What does the doctor seem to think is most important for Brunetti to know? Though she refuses to discuss Signora Trevisan’s visits, she reveals Francesca’s history without question—does she breach patient confidentiality in that case?

4. “Cleaner than clean,” Trevisan’s public life gives the police few clues as to his murderer’s motive. Who do Brunetti and Vianello turn to for unofficial information? Paola explains to Chiara that it’s appropriate for Brunetti to do so because his sources are aware they’re speaking to a police agent, but that for her it would amount to a betrayal of confidence. Do you agree? Where does that leave Vianello’s wife Nadia, who also provides the police with information?

  • Brunetti despairs at the inequities in the Italian justice system, where petty crimes and violations are punished more regularly and severely than looting by politicians and corporations. Is this situation unique to Italy, or is it characteristic of most societies? What shields the rich and powerful from the law? Is it merely the extent of their protection, rather than the fact of the protection itself, that varies from country to country?
  • “It seems to me it’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference”[between] the criminal and the wrong,” Brunetti says to Paola over dinner one night (p. 110). Is he referring to Italy‘s notoriously bewildering legal code, or something larger? Given the widespread corruption that reaches from the government to the Church, who or what is left to establish the moral compass?
  • Consider the favor trade that is crucial to Brunetti’s gathering of information. Why do sources like Judge Beniamin, Giorgio, and Pia cooperate with the police, and what are their expectations? Why does Signorina Elletra arrange for Brunetti to speak to Giorgio even though she could have ‘resolved” the matter herself?
  • As Brunetti examines the list of Trevisan’s clients, he is struck by the “promiscuity of names, the revered rubbing elbows with the suspect” (p. 203). Where else, besides the lawyer’s files, is such promiscuity common? Where is it immaterial, and where is it significant?
  • Mara’s experience, as Brunetti well knows, is hardly uncommon, but Brunetti is surprised that she tells her story “with not even a trace of self-pity, with no attempt to turn the teller into an unwilling victim of overwhelming forces’ (p. 213). Consider the phrase “unwilling victim.” What are the forces that propel women like Mara into risky situations? What traps them once they find themselves there?
  • In his interviews with sources and suspects, Brunetti employs strategies ranging from ignorance to deliberate provocation. Consider the weight he gives to setting, suspects’ state of mind, and their assumptions about him when preparing to question someone. How does he use each to his advantage in his conversations with Signora Trevisan, Martucci, Silvestri?
  • Paola tells Brunetti she much prefers even so-called Silver Fork Novels to American literature. What types of books is she referring to? What were the historical circumstances that created a demand for them, and is there an equivalent genre in contemporary literature?
  • “And so the brothels of the developed world filled with dark-haired, dark-skinned exotics’ (p. 241). What factors make women from particular countries most vulnerable to this particular type of slave trade? Consider how race, culture, and the local and world economies shape their experiences.
  • Pia tells Brunetti that the “big business’ of prostitution is no different from the rest, run by the ‘same men with good haircuts and custom-made suits’ (p. 244). Consider how this industry has endured through the ages, and how it has changed. Arguably, the ease with which goods and people are now transported has influenced prostitution as much as any other area of trade. What would be the impact of acknowledging this “big business’ via legalization?
  • The ancient Greeks lived with slavery, but seem to have never condemned it outright. What reason does Brunetti offer for this? Why does he believe slavery is not condemned today? Is it sheer ignorance that it still exists, indifference, a combination?
  • How does Signora Ceroni come to be, in her words, ‘middle management” in Trevisan’s operation? Why does she insist on speaking in business terms when discussing the prostitution ring with Brunetti? Consider other examples of victims who support, and perpetuate, the very system that victimized them, their reasons and coping mechanisms.
  • What do you make of Signora Ceroni‘s assertion that she was justified in committing the murders? Brunetti agrees that he’s unsure whether the distribution and commissioning of the snuff tapes could be prosecuted under the law, but does he propose an alternative she chose to ignore?
  • Why is Signora Ceroni so convinced that the police will not be able to protect her? Does Brunetti ultimately fail her?