I have been a fan of Donna Leon for a long time. My respect for her redoubles now that I’ve read Beastly Things (which was one of my son’s/daughter-in-law’s Mother’s Day presents to me – no hidden comment intended, I’m sure!). This novel should be thrust in the face of all those smug, sententious critics who think that crime fiction is not ‘serious’. Without giving too much away, it is about the institutionalised abuse of animals and how substandard meat is being dishonestly introduced into the food chain. It was published before the horsemeat controversy was exposed, so it is prescient as well as topical.
Reading Beastly Things can be painful and even, at times, horrific. In addition to animal maltreatment, it explores blackmail and the corrosive effect that lying has on personal relationships. The novel begins with a murder – the result in part of the collision of all these themes – but the death is less central to it than they are (although the victim suffers from Madelung disease, clearly well-researched by the author, which makes him interesting and helps to give credibility to the plot).
Paradoxically, some of the most beautiful and memorable passages describe the carcasses of slaughtered animals. The whole book is a metaphor for the degenerative state of Italian politics. It suggests that these have so tainted public life that people no longer have a moral yardstick by which to govern their private lives. The novel would be extremely depressing were it not for the finely-crafted passages about Commissario Guido Brunetti’s relationship with his wife Paola. These run like a musical refrain through all the Brunetti books. I am not often jealous of other writers, but I really do envy the way in which Leon succeeds in presenting Brunetti’s perfect marriage to the perfect woman – Paola is beautiful, intelligent, rich and a good cook who daily prepares a delicious lunch and dinner for Brunetti and her two (fairly perfect) teenage children, as well as holding down a demanding job as a university lecturer – without being coy or cloying. She achieves this by portraying the marriage against the backdrop of Italy’s continuing ills. The implication is that the Commissario’s personal idyll is daily under threat and could be destroyed at any moment by some unseen force or miasma. And, of course, his professional life is filled with seamy horrors.
There is always a sombre undertone to Leon’s work, but this is one of her darkest novels yet – the more so because it is not in the slightest bit far-fetched. It could easily have been based on fact and, for all I know, it has been. I recommend it wholeheartedly – but if you are planning to read it, you should invest in a bar of chocolate as well, to keep up your serotonin levels!