Trace Elementsby Donna Leon
A woman’s cryptic dying words in a Venetian hospice lead Guido Brunetti to uncover a threat to the entire region in Donna Leon’s haunting twenty-ninth Brunetti novel
When Dottoressa Donato calls the Questura to report that a dying patient at the hospice Fatebenefratelli wants to speak to the police, Commissario Guido Brunetti and his colleague, Claudia Griffoni, waste no time in responding.
“They killed him. It was bad money. I told him no,” Benedetta Toso gasps the words about her recently-deceased husband, Vittorio Fadalto. Even though he is not sure she can hear him Brunetti softly promises he and Griffoni will look into what initially appears to be a private family tragedy. They discover that Fadalto worked in the field collecting samples of contamination for a company that measures the cleanliness of Venice’s water supply and that he had died in a mysterious motorcycle accident. Distracted briefly by Vice Questore Patta’s obsession with youth crime in Venice, Brunetti is bolstered once more by the remarkable research skills of Patta’s secretary, Signora Elettra Zorzi. Piecing together the tangled threads, in time Brunetti comes to realize the perilous meaning in the woman’s accusation and the threat it reveals to the health of the entire region. But justice in this case proves to be ambiguous, as Brunetti is reminded it can be when, seeking solace, he reads Aeschylus’s classic play The Eumenides.
As she has done so often through her memorable characters and storytelling skill, Donna Leon once again engages our sensibilities as to the differences between guilt and responsibility.
A New York Times Best Seller!
“A complex case concerning water; not the canal waters into which Venice is inexorably sinking, but the city’s own precious water supply . . . Leon’s characterizations are always a treat, especially those of Brunetti’s colleagues . . . This endlessly enjoyable series, with its deep thoughts about justice and vengeance and charming classical allusions, can’t help making you smile.”—Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review
“Donna Leon’s appreciation of her adopted city’s sublime yet fragile magnificence is as fresh (and invigorating) today as it was when Death at La Fenice was published in 1992 . . . Should anyone still doubt that Leon is a superb novelist, let them consider the scene in which Guido gently questions a woman during the last few minutes of her life. You can feel the tension, fear, horror—and wonder.”—Times (UK)
“Donna Leon’s ability to paint both her city of Venice and the quandaries of commitment make Trace Elements a quietly powerful book . . . Rich with questions of honor and trust, offered from the hand of a master storyteller.”—New York Journal of Books
“Anyone who has even a passing interest in mystery literature should be reading this series religiously. Leon is incapable of writing badly and is a subtle, nuanced storyteller of the first order. Trace Elements continues her wondrous string of memorable police procedurals, all of of which are keepers.”—Book Reporter
“A meditative novel that looks at the water crisis in Venice—not flooding this time, but pollution—set against the eternal problem of justice . . . In an age where so many seek simplistic and wrongheaded answers to complex questions, it is comforting that Leon, in human complexity, remains one of our most beloved writers.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Thought-provoking . . . As usual, Leon adroitly portrays the complex questions of what constitutes justice and the sad consequences that can result from its pursuit. This long-running series shows no sign of losing steam.”—Publishers Weekly
“Venice Commissario of Police Guido Brunetti and his partner Claudia Griffoni are called to the bedside of a dying woman as this latest outing begins . . . The heat and blinding sunlight reflecting off the buildings and water become characters, too, in Leon’s well-crafted, atmospheric mystery.”—Library Journal
“[Leon] has never become perfunctory, never failed to give us vivid portraits of people and of Venice, never lost her fine, disillusioned indignation.”—Ursula K. LeGuin, New York Times
“You become so wrapped up in these compelling characters . . . Each one is better than the last.”—Louise Erdrich, PBS NewsHour
“Donna Leon’s Venetian mysteries never disappoint, calling up the romantic sights and sounds of La Serenissima even as they acquaint us with the practical matters that concern the city’s residents.”—Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review
“Few detective writers create so vivid, inclusive, and convincing a narrative as Donna Leon . . . One of the most exquisite and subtle detective series ever.”—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
“[Leon] uses the relatively small and crime-free canvas of Venice for rips about Italian life, sexual styles and—best of all—the kind of ingrown business and political corruption that seems to lurk just below the surface.”—Chicago Tribune
“Hers is an unusually potent cocktail of atmosphere and event.”—New Yorker
“For those who know Venice, or want to, Brunetti is a well-versed escort to the nooks, crannies, moods, and idiosyncrasies of what residents call La Serenissima, the Serene One . . . Richly atmospheric, [Leon] introduces you to the Venice insiders know.”—USA Today
“Donna Leon is the undisputed crime fiction queen . . . Leon’s ability to capture the social scene and internal politics [of Venice] is first-rate.”—Baltimore Sun
“Terrific at providing, through its weary but engaging protagonist, a strong sense of the moral quandaries inherent in Italian society and culture.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Brunetti is one of the most attractive policemen in crime fiction today.”—Philadelphia Inquirer
“As always, Brunetti is highly attuned to (and sympathetic toward) the failings of the humans around him.”—Seattle Times
“Leon’s writing trembles with true feeling.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Leon started out with offhand, elegant excellence, and has simply kept it up.”—Guardian
“Compassionate yet incorruptible, Brunetti knows that true justice doesn’t always end in an arrest or a trial.”—Publishers Weekly
“[Brunetti] is a superb police detective—calm, deliberate, and insightful as he investigates with a reflective thoroughness.”—Library Journal
“The appeal of Guido Brunetti, the hero of Donna Leon’s long-running Venetian crime series, comes not from his shrewdness, though he is plenty shrewd, nor from his quick wit. It comes, instead, from his role as an Everyman . . . [his life is] not so different from our own days at the office or nights around the dinner table. Crime fiction for those willing to grapple with, rather than escape, the uncertainties of daily life.”—Booklist
“It’s difficult to describe the work of Donna Leon other than in superlatives . . . An annual blessing, a fine series—one of the finest (see what I mean) in the mystery (or any) genre . . . There are few reading joys that equal cracking the binding of a new Leon novel . . . If you have not experienced this world, so exotic and yet so familiar, you can pick up literally any volume in the series and begin a comfortable entry into Brunetti’s Venice.”—BookReporter
“One of the most popular crime series worldwide . . . While the Brunetti books, with their abundance of local color and gastronomic treats, appeal to the fans of the traditional mystery, Leon has something darker and deeper in mind.”—Life Sentence
“No author has delved into Venetian society quite like Leon, whose insider’s view shows how crime seeps throughout the city, touching all strata of society.”—Mystery Scene
Reading Group Guide for Trace Elements by Donna Leon
1. The novel opens with Commissario Brunetti and Commissario Griffoni pausing to observe the cleaning of one of Venice’s canals. What is the process like? If the canals are the city’s arteries, what does their state suggest about the condition of the city’s heart?
2. What is Benedetta Toso’s condition when Brunetti and Griffoni first meet her? How does Griffoni try to connect with her, and is she successful? How does Signora Toso affect Brunetti?
3. How do Venetians generally feel about Italians from the south, and do these sensibilities and stereotypes influence how they interact with southerners who live and work in Venice, including Commissario Griffoni and Vice-Questore Patta? When Paola tells Chiara that Brunetti has a “low opinion of southerners” (p. 57), is her description accurate? Is it justified? Why or why not?
4. “If you’re born where it is, your thermostat adapts to it,” Brunetti tells Chiara about co-existing with the Mafia (p. 59). What does he mean by that? Is he discounting individual agency, or merely acknowledging the overpowering social structures at work? In what light does this analogy place the actions and “luck” of Brunetti’s friend Giulio? Are there similar forces at work in Venice, to which Brunetti’s “thermostat” adapts to?
5. “I’d rather see it rot and collapse,” Brunetti tells Pascalicchio about a crumbling Venetian building that might be restored to be turned into a hotel (p. 72). Does he mean what he says? Why? What shapes Brunetti’s attitudes towards tourists and tourism?
6. What is Brunetti’s first impression of Eugenio Veltrini? How does Veltrini’s behavior change during the course of his initial encounter with Brunetti and Vianello, and what image does he strive to project to the policemen?
7. Signor Braga, the journalist who lost his job after reporting a story about groundwater pollution, gives Brunetti and Griffoni a glimpse into one of the ways in which commercial interests work to keep pollution’s devastating effects invisible. “What are the people in all those small towns and villages supposed to do?” Braga asks (p. 160-1). Without a free press, what are the average citizens’ avenues of redress? Are the remaining courses of action available to all, and are they effective?
8. As Brunetti considers Il Gazzettino’s daily reports of pollution levels in Venice, he realizes that “each day [he] turned his eyes away in helpless alarm” (p. 209). What about environmental hazards makes them particularly difficult to communicate, or difficult to grasp? Why are people likely to “turn away” from such issues, instead of mobilizing to address them?
9. “Most of the people he arrested were weak creatures who gave in to passing temptation or impulse, meaning to do no real harm,” Brunetti thinks to himself as he considers his profession (p. 216). Do you agree with this characterization? Is the criminal justice system designed or equipped to effectively deal with “strong” actors who operate in calculated ways?
10. As Veltrini tries to negotiate with Brunetti to avoid arrest for his role in covering up water contamination, he points to the excruciatingly slow pace of the Italian justice system. In what ways do procedural delays stemming from mechanisms designed to ensure fair outcomes cause harm? What are the trade-offs that law enforcement officers need to make when working within such a system?
11. Why does Brunetti ultimately decide to consider Veltrini’s offer? Is the decision his to make, or is he overstepping his authority? Would the outcome have been the same if Commissario Griffoni had been included in his decision-making?
12. “He had to decide which crime to punish, which to ignore, and choose the greater criminal. Or better odds.” (p. 277) In this case, which one does Brunetti end up choosing? What other factors seem to influence his decision? Do you agree with the course he ultimately takes?