A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mysteryby Donna Leon
“Fatal Remedies . . . has a neatly devious plot, and, like its predecessors, sharply evokes the sights, sounds and smells of Venice.” —Evening Standard (UK)
For Commissario Brunetti, it began with an early morning phone call. In the chill of the Venetian dawn, a sudden act of vandalism shatters the quiet of the deserted city. But soon Brunetti is shocked to find that the culprit waiting to be apprehended at the scene is someone from his own family. Meanwhile, Brunetti is under pressure from his superiors to solve a daring robbery with a link to a suspicious accidental death. Does it all lead back to the Mafia? And how are his family’s actions connected to these crimes?
“Few detective writers create so vivid, inclusive and convincing a narrative as Donna Leon, the expatriate American with the Venetian heart.” —Paul Skenazy, Washington Post
The woman walked quietly into the empty campo. To her left stood the grill-covered windows of a bank, empty and sleeping the well-protected sleep that comes in the early hours of the morning. She crossed to the centre of the campo and stood beside the low-hung iron chains enclosing the monument to Daniele Manin, who had sacrificed himself for the freedom of the city. How fitting, she thought.
She heard a noise to her left and turned towards it, but it was nothing more than one of the Guardia di San Marco and his German shepherd, a gap-mouthed dog that looked too young and too friendly to present any real threat to thieves. If the guard thought it strange to see a middle-aged woman standing still in the middle of Campo Manin at three fifteen in the morning, he gave no sign of it and went about his business of wedging orange paper rectangles into the frames of doors and near the locks of the shops, proof that he had made his rounds and found their premises undisturbed.
When the guard and his dog left, the woman moved away from the low chain and went to stand in front of a large glass display window on the far side of the square. In the dim light from inside she studied the posters, read the prices listed for the various special offers, saw that MasterCard, Visa, and American Express were all accepted. Over her left shoulder, she carried a blue canvas beach bag. She pivoted her body and the weight of what was in the bag swung it round to the front. She set it on the ground, glanced down into it, and reached in with her right hand.
Before she could remove anything, she was so startled by footsteps from behind her that she yanked her hand from the bag and stood upright. But it was nothing more than four men and a woman, just off the number 1 boat that stopped at Rialto at three fourteen, now crossing the campo on their way to some other part of the city. None of them paid any attention to the woman. Their footsteps died away as they walked up, then down the bridge that led into Calle della Mandola.
Again, she bent and reached into the bag and this time her hand came out with a large rock, one that had stood for years on the desk in her study. She’d brought it back from a vacation on a beach in Maine more than ten years before. The size of a grapefruit, it fitted perfectly into her gloved palm. She looked down at it, raised her hand, even tossed the stone up and down a few times, as if it were a tennis ball and her turn to serve. She looked from the rock to the window and again to the rock.
She stepped back from the window until she was about two metres from it and turned until she stood sideways, but still looking at the window. She pulled her right hand back level with her head and raised her left arm as counterweight, just as her son had taught her to do one summer when he had tried to teach her to throw like a boy, not a girl. For an instant it occurred to her that her life, at least part of it, would perhaps be divided in half by her next action, but she dismissed the idea as melodramatic self-importance.
In one sweeping motion she brought her hand forward with all her strength. At the full extension of her arm she released the rock, then staggered forward a half-step, powerless to resist the momentum of her own motion. Because the step pulled her head down, the fragments of glass that exploded from the shattering window landed in her hair and did her no injury.
The stone must have found some inherent fault line in the glass, for instead of punching out a small hole its own size, it shattered open a triangle two metres high and almost as wide. She waited until there was no more sound of falling glass, but that had no sooner stopped than from the back room of the office in front of her the sharp double-wail of a burglar alarm blared out into the silent morning. She stood upright and plucked absently at the shards of glass that stuck to the front of her coat, then shook her head wildly, as if just rising up from under a wave, to free it of the glass she could feel trapped there. She stepped back, picked up her bag and placed the straps over her shoulder, then, suddenly aware of how weak her knees had become, went and sat on one of the low pillars that anchored the metal chains.
She hadn’t really considered what the hole would be like, but she was surprised to see it was so big, large enough for a man to walk through. Cobwebs in the shattered glass ran from the hole towards the four corners; the glass around the hole was milky and opaque, but the sharp shards that pointed inward were no less dangerous for that.
Behind her, in the top-floor apartment to the left of the bank, lights went on, then in the one that stood directly above the still wailing alarm. Time passed, but she was curiously uninterested in it: whatever was going to happen would happen, no matter how long or short a time it took for the police to get there. The noise bothered her, however. Its sharp double bleat destroyed the peace of the night. But then, she thought, that’s what all this is about, the destruction of peace.
Shutters were flung out, three heads appeared and as quickly disappeared, more lights came on. Sleep was impossible so long as the alarm continued to scream out that crime was afoot in the city. After about ten minutes two policemen came running into the campo, one with his pistol in his hand. He went to the hole in the shattered window and called out, “Whoever’s in there, come out. This is the police.”
Nothing happened. The alarm continued.
He called out again, but when there was still no response he turned to his partner, who shrugged and shook his head. The first one put his pistol back into its holster and moved a step closer to the shattered window. Above him, a window opened and someone called out, “Can’t you turn that damn thing off?” Then another angry voice called down, “I want to get some sleep.”
The second policeman approached his partner and they peered in together, then the first raised a foot and kicked away the tall stalagmites of glass that rose up dangerously from the base of the frame. Together they climbed inside and disappeared into the back. Minutes passed and nothing happened. Then, in the same instant, the lights in the office went out and the alarm stopped.
They came back into the main room, one of them now leading the way with a flashlight. They looked around to see if anything appeared to be missing or destroyed, then stepped back through the hole in the window into the campo. It was then that they noticed the woman sitting on the stone pillar.
The one who had pulled out his pistol went towards her. “Signora, did you see what happened?”
“What? Who was it?” Hearing his questions, the other policeman came up and joined them, pleased that they had so easily found a witness. That would speed things up, prevent their having to ring doorbells and ask questions, get them a description and out of this damp autumn cold, back to the warmth of the Questura to write up the report.
“Who was it?” the first one asked.
“Someone threw a rock through the window,” the woman said.
“What did he look like?”
“It wasn’t a man,” she answered.
“A woman?” the second one interrupted and she stopped herself from asking if there were perhaps some other alternative she didn’t know about. No jokes. No jokes. There were not going to be any more jokes, not until all this was over.
“Yes, a woman.”
With a sharp look at his partner, the first one resumed his questions. “What did she look like?”
“She was in her early forties, blonde hair, shoulder-length.”
The woman’s hair was tucked inside a scarf, so at first the policemen didn’t get it. “What was she wearing?” he asked.
“A tan coat, brown boots.”
He noticed the colour of her coat, then looked down at her feet. “This isn’t a joke, Signora. We want to know what she looked like.”
She looked straight at him and in the light cast down from the street lamps, he saw the glint of some secret passion in her eyes. “No jokes, officer. I’ve told you what she was wearing.”
“But you’re describing yourself, Signora.” Again, her own inner alarm against melodrama prevented her from saying “Thou sayest it.” Instead, she nodded.
“You did it?” the first one asked, unable to disguise his astonishment.
She nodded again.
The other one clarified, “You threw a stone through that window?”
Once more she nodded.
With unspoken agreement the two men backed away from her until they were out of earshot, though they both kept their eyes on her. They put their heads together and spoke in lowered voices for a moment, then one of them pulled out his cellular and punched in the number of the Questura. Above them, a window was flung open, a head popped out, only to disappear immediately. The window slammed shut.
The policeman spoke for several minutes, giving what information he had and saying they’d already apprehended the person responsible. When the night sergeant told them to bring him in, the policeman didn’t bother to correct him. He folded the mouthpiece back into place and slipped the phone into the pocket of his jacket. “Danieli told me to take her in,” he told his partner.
“And that means I get to stay here?” the other one asked, making no attempt to disguise his irritation at having been finessed into staying there in the cold.
“You can wait inside. Danieli’s calling the owner. I think he lives around here somewhere.” He handed his partner the phone. “Call in if he doesn’t show up.”
With an attempt at good grace the second officer took the phone with a smile. “I’ll stay until he shows up. But next time I get to take the suspect in.”
His partner smiled and nodded. Good feelings restored, they approached the woman who, during their long conversation, had remained exactly where she was, seated on the pillar, eyes studying the damaged window and the shards of glass that spread out in a monochrome rainbow in front of it.
“Come with me,” the first policeman said.
Silently she pushed herself away from the pillar and started towards the entrance to a narrow calle to the left of the destroyed window. Neither policeman made note of the fact that she knew the way to begin the shortest route to the Questura.
It took them ten minutes to walk there, during which time neither the woman nor the policeman spoke. Had any of the very few people who saw them bothered to pay attention to them as they walked across the sleeping expanse of Piazza San Marco and down the narrow calle that led towards San Lorenzo and the Questura, they would have seen an attractive, well-dressed woman walking in company with a uniformed policeman. Strange to see at four in the morning, but perhaps her house had been burgled or she’d been called in to identify a wayward child.
There was no one waiting to let them in, so the policeman had to ring repeatedly before the sleep-dulled face of a young policeman popped out from the guard room to the right of the door. When he saw them, he ducked back and re-emerged seconds later, pulling on his jacket. He opened the door with a muttered apology. “No one told me you were coming, Ruberti,” he said. The other dismissed his apology, but then waved him back towards his bed, remembering what it was to be new to the force and dead with heavy sleep.
He led the woman to the steps on the left and up to the first floor, where the officers had their room. He opened the door for her and held it politely while she came in, following her into the room and taking a seat at his desk. Opening the right drawer, he pulled out a heavy block of printed forms, slapped it down on the desk in front of them, looked up to the woman and motioned with one hand that she should take the seat in front of him.
While she sat and unbuttoned her coat, he filled out the top of the form, giving the date, the time, his name and rank. When it came to, “Crime,” he paused for a moment, then wrote “Vandalism” in the empty rectangle.
He glanced up at her then and, for the first time, saw her clearly. He was struck by something that made no sense to him at all, by how much everything about her—her clothing, her hair, even the way she sat—gave off the self-assurance that comes only from money, great amounts of it. Please let her not be a crazy, he prayed silently.
“Do you have your carta d’identità, Signora?”
She nodded and reached into her bag. At no time did it occur to him that there was any danger in letting a woman he had just arrested for a crime of some violence reach into a large bag to pull something out.
Her hand emerged holding a leather wallet. She opened it and took out the beige identity card, pulled it open, reversed it and placed it on the desk in front of him.
He glanced down at the photo, saw that it must have been taken some time ago, when she was still a real beauty. Then he looked down at the name. “Paola Brunetti?” he asked, unable to disguise his astonishment.
“Jesus Christ, you’re Brunetti’s wife.”
1. Ruberti, the policeman who brings in Paola Brunetti in the opening chapter of the novel, classifies her crime as vandalism in his report. Is that an accurate description? Consider it from different perspectives, from the policeman patrolling the street to the owner of the travel agency whose window is broken. What does Paola believe she is doing? How effective are her actions in accomplishing her aims?
2.Consider Brunetti’s cover-up of Paola’s first arrest. Acting instinctually to protect his wife, does he compromise his position as a policeman and as a senior officer at the Questura? How does he also compromise Paola’s campaign?
3. “When I married you, Guido, you believed in . . . things like justice, and what’s right, and how to decide to do what’s right,” Paola tells Brunetti. “You believe in the law now” (p. 24). What are the limitations of the law in regulating something like sex tourism? What is Brunetti’s argument for why the law, even if flawed, is what he must enforce in Venice—and is he convinced by his own reasoning? Consider, too, effective forms of protest that do not break the law, i.e. boycotts and publicity campaigns that stir public opinion. When laws fail to eradicate something as vile as sex tourism, what sanctions remain?
4. How does Signorina Elettra liven up the Vice-Questore’s management meetings? What makes this entertainment possible, and what does it say about the usefulness of Vice-Questore Patta’s weekly lectures?
5. Feeling it his duty, Brunetti warns Signor Iacovantuono, a witness to a bank robbery, about the dangers of testifying. What is Signor Iacovantuono’s motivation for testifying? What assumptions must he have about his society, in particular about the law and the police, to be so disposed? Consider conditions which make it difficult, if not impossible, for witnesses to come forward about crimes in their communities—and what happens to Signor Iacovantuono next.
6. Paola tells Brunetti that she is moved to act against sex tourism out of empathy born of a common fear: “[Women] spend [their] lives being made afraid of violence . . . every one of us knows that what happens to those kids in Cambodia. . . . could just as easily have happened to us” (p. 52). What has driven people to act against injustices throughout history? Are common experiences or threats more powerful in mobilizing a movement than abstract ideas of justice, or are both necessary catalysts to a successful campaign?
7. Unlike Paola’s first arrest, which Brunetti helps squelch, her second becomes part of the official record. What are the dangers for her and for Brunetti? Has Paola fully considered the implications of her actions for his career and for their family life?
8. Dottor Mitri, the owner of the travel agency whose window Paola has broken, attempts to save face for all involved by calling a meeting with Brunetti to “resolve this matter . . . between gentlemen” (p. 74). What is Brunetti’s impression of Mitri’s position in Venetian society and of his way of doing business? Why does Brunetti refuse the offer? Is his response surprising, especially in light of the fact that he tried to conceal Paola’s first arrest?
9. “She had never denied it was illegal. She simply didn’t care” (p. 84). Why does Paola’s attitude so rattle Brunetti? Why does it feel like a personal attack when, as he well knows, Paola considers it an entirely political, and impersonal, action?
10. The media pounce on Brunetti once news of his wife’s arrest leaks out. Which elements of the story are particularly delectable to journalists, and which are brushed aside? What is Brunetti and Paola’s strategy for dealing with this onslaught of attention, and how well does it work? What parts of the story can they influence or inform, and which are beyond their control?
11. What are the circumstances of Mitri’s murder, and the apparent motive? What about the note left at the murder scene seems suspicious or odd to Brunetti? Though Paola is never an official suspect, and even an indirect connection is quickly dismissed, why does she remain linked to Mitri’s death in the public’s mind?
12. Signor Dorandi, the travel agency manager, denies any role in arranging sex tours until Brunetti presents him with evidence of booked trips for unaccompanied men. What is his explanation at that point? Are his actions defensible, or is he subverting the law even as he follows it to the letter?
13. Vianello suggests that people have become desensitized to violence and horror through television. Brunetti counters that perhaps desensitization is a matter of distance—geographical, cultural, socioeconomic. Going by either measure, is the world getting worse, as Vianello believes? Or are these evils, and the lack of empathy that attends them, timeless—a part of the human condition?
14. When Brunetti visits Avvocato Zambino, Mitri’s lawyer tells him that his client seemed to be very wary of publicity in the aftermath of Paula’s attack. Brunetti infers that Mitri wanted to avoid scrutiny of his other businesses. What are some other reasons why businesses are press shy? Consider other tactics Paola may have used in her campaign against the travel agency’s sex tours.
15. During the dinner party Paola attends with Brunetti, how does Dottoressa Santa Lucia try to provoke Paola into talking about her attack and arrest? How do Paola and Brunetti sense, and avoid, the trap?
16. When Brunetti catches her daydreaming, Signorina Elettra wonders aloud what her position is at the Questura, apart from her official title as secretary to the Vice-Questore. Brunetti tells her that she is the “eyes . . . nose . . . and the living spirit of our curiosity” (p. 206). Consider her place in the Questura’s informal organization, based on power dynamics rather than official hierarchy. Who has final say in her relationship with the Vice-Questore, for example?
17. Signorina Elettra may have her computer, but Brunetti has a broad network of contacts he can tap for information during an investigation. Consider the range of people he calls on in this case, from drug dealers to his prominent father-in-law. What are the different relationships he has to maintain to keep information flowing, and what can he offer his sources in exchange for tips?
18. After their high-speed chase ends in an accident, Brunetti takes turns questioning Bonaventura and Sandi. How does he play the two suspects off one another? What are other tactics he uses to win cooperation?
19. “Few secrets resisted the marriage pillow,” Brunetti thinks when he first meets Signora Mitri, who professes ignorance about her husband’s business (p. 156). In fact, it is Signora Mitri’s secret that ultimately helps Brunetti clinch the case. What subtle clues lead him to ask Signora Mitri about her relationship with her husband, and thus to learn of a way to ascertain Bonaventura’s involvement?
20. Even when Mitri’s murder turns out to have had nothing to do with the agency’s sex tours Paula still feels responsible, telling Brunetti her attack gave Bonaventura a cover to kill. Given what Brunetti discovered during the investigation, do you think Paola bears any responsibility for making the murder “easier”? Or do you think that, given their conflicted relationship, Bonaventura was bound to kill Mitri eventually?