Review: A Venetian Reckoning; or Common Problems With Tourist Fiction


A Venetian Reckoning

Donna Leon

Macmillan, 1995

One of the greatest things about Golden Age novels is that they seldom begin with a lorry full of Romanian prostitutes skidding on black ice then falling down a mountainside leaving no survivors.

If you are in any doubt that abuse, trafficking and selling of human beings as commodities is Bad Thing, then A Venetian Reckoning is the book for you!

But if you’ve already reached this conclusion independently, you may prefer to read something else.

There’s a formula for crime novels set in Italy. The covers show a touristy picture, photoshopped to look spooky, and praise from critics for depicting the dark heart of a beautiful city. We’ll get a decent sightseeing tour of [InsertTouristDestinationHere*], get drawn into the dark and nasty underworld of [InsertTouristDestinationHere], and hopefully get some mediations on the human condition and how justice is done in difficult conditions. All well and good. But another culture is as alien as the past, and tourist fiction runs the same risk as historical fiction. If the author isn’t a native of the time / place they’re writing about, they’re often more interested in the setting than the plot and this is fatal**. Research is a good thing, but it has to be worn lightly and, crucially, it should look effortless. You finish A Venetian Reckoning with a better understanding of the author’s opinions about corruption in Italian politics than you do about any of the characters, and you find out more about the mechanics of human trafficking than you do about the motives for murder. You can’t forget that this is a novel written as virtual tourism, especially when characters persistently philosophise about their surroundings in a thuddingly unsubtle way.

‘Why arrest anyone for murder…when the man who for decades had been the highest politician in the country stood accused of having ordered the murders of the few honest judges who dared to stand up to the Mafia?’

‘We once had an empire, now all we have…all we have is this Disneyland.’

Leon’s protagonist, Commissario Guido Brunetti, holds every virtue of the One Honest Cop. He loves his wife and daughter, works around his unhelpful superiors, is wearily cynical on matters of religion and politics and is utterly, utterly boring. He is almost saved by the Leon’s wry humour and the sheer quality of the writing. Almost, but not quite. A selection of unpleasant individuals die; their deaths are dutifully investigated; the murderer is eventually found; the situation is morally ambiguous; we end on a general note of senselessness and futility. The world is full of bad people and stupid people, and the one or two good people are fighting an unwinnable fight. This, perhaps, is an understandable moral to take away from corrupt systems, especially Italian politics.

The attitude to this, especially from a foreigner’s perspective, would be laugh or cry (tragedy, after all, is only comedy slowed down). It is perfectly possible for an Anglo-Saxon academic living in Italy and fascinated by the culture to write a very good series of Italian police procedurals, with a side-line in culture, humour, and a virtual tour of the country: the comparisons with Michael Dibdin’s better(-known) Aurelio Zen series were always going to be obvious. Like Dibdin, Leon seems to have written these novels partly as thrillers, partly because she seems genuinely fascinated by the culture, the setting, the idea of justice in a country of (perceived) corruption. But the two series give completely different impressions. Reading the Zen novels, you leave with a sense that, for all its flaws, Dibdin had a genuine affection for his host country and took joy in its eccentricities. You occasionally get the sense that Leon seems to think that Italy would be a perfectly nice place if it weren’t for all the Italians. The Zen novels had the sense that most people, though often brutal, selfish or vindictive, are fundamentally decent and just trying to make their own way in the world: the conflict comes when these ways collide. The main character was generally a decent and reasonably honest man who sometime got caught in events beyond his control, and sometimes found that the practical and common-sense thing to do wasn’t always the same as the Right thing to do. You consequently gained an understanding about how a corrupt system could be staffed by both bad people and by good people just trying to get shit done. In A Venetian Reckoning, you get an understanding about how a corrupt system is staffed by bad people just trying to get rich. But the novel also contains the confusing message that minor corruption is not corruption at all if you’re on the side of Truth and Justice.

And, like so, so, so very many modern crime novels, for its verisimilitude and cynicism A Venetian Reckoning comes with a fundamental Good People / Bad People divide. For all the corruption, murders, rapes and pointless deaths this leaves the novel with a curious sense of naiveté, almost like a fairy story. It’s not, consequently, a reflection on character or anything relevant to real life, just a particularly brutal morality tale.

It’s mildly diverting, though needlessly brutal. Read Dead Lagoon instead.





*The frequency rate seems to go: Venice, Florence, Rome, everywhere else. This initially seems confusing, as Italy’s second-most visited city, Milan, seems left out – until you realise that half of Milan’s tourist industry from within Italy, with Venice is nearly 20 points ahead in terms of international tourism. Tourist novels are, after all, written for foreigners.

**Much of Five Minute Mysteries’ admiration for Lindsey Davis comes from how good she is at not doing this.


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