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!
9 thoughts on “Beastly blended pleasures”
Oh dear, we’re going to disagree….only a little. I loved the first Donna Leon books, but soon I found them formulaic and the characterization banal and flat. Every now and then, one came along that was better, but I’ve now got so fed up I’ve abandoned her for the Scandi writers. (Ps BH also says the same – and he loves Italy and so was very ‘pro’ her books).
I feel the same about Peter Robinson, though I still enjoy reading him; I suppose it’s inevitable that a series of books will have formulaic elements to them; however, this one isn’t in the same mould at all, as I hope I’ve indicated. As for disagreeing with each other, a) you have been very delicate about it and b) my idea of Carol Hedges is of a woman who speaks her mind… and that’s very much what I like about you. Most of my friends enjoy disagreeing with me! 😉
Christina, as you know I read and enjoyed your book because it was intriguing, stimulating and challenging without being horrific. I have been a Donna Leon fan for some years too, but now I wonder whether I will like this one. It seems almost a pattern that once a crime fiction author becomes well known, the books become longer, more intense, darker and often more horrific. This happened to Elizabeth George, Ian Rankin and to one or two others I could mention whose books I used to enjoy. I so hope this isn’t true of Donna Leon. I would be very sad if it were so. That aside, I confess to being very sensitive about animal abuse, so maybe you can advise me here. Would you still recommend this book for someone who is not into shock and gore, and is particularly disgusted by the systematic mistreatment of animals? I love Brunetti and Paola, but is there presence sufficient to counteract the dark side of the book?
First, it isn’t long. Second, it isn’t sensational, although there are two or three chapters in the middle that are disturbing. Despite this, I think that, as you are an animal lover, it should appeal to you for reasons that I cannot give without spoiling it. The quality of the writing is excellent. I don’t know enough about your tastes to guide you further, Valerie.
Agh, sorry about the spelling! It should be ‘is their presence sufficient..’ I can’t believe my fingers did that and my eyes didn’t see it until I’d published it!
That’s enough for me then, Christina. There are still several of Donna Leon’s books that I have not yet read, so this one will go on the list too to read too. Thank you.
Please feel free to stop reading if it proves awkward! 🙂
Not only do I read and love Donna Leon – I re-read and love Donna Leon. I have read all of the Brunetti’s at least twice – I read her for the atmosphere of Venice – and love the lunch and dinner descriptions. I like the strength of the characters – Signorina Elletra – Vianello – Paola – Count Orazio –
Formulaic? Kind of a weak critique for a wealth of escapist literature. I read to escape. And if I can escape to Venice? Yes.
Carla Black’s mysteries, on the other hand, leave me scratching my head. The introduction of a dwarf as a sidekick threw me over the top. Not real. No less formulaic – just not real.
I think we’re on the same wavelength re Donna Leon! I really like your enthusiasm; you obviously have a lively interest in good literature and I admire that in anyone. Thank you for visiting. I popped over and enjoyed your blog. You seem to have a fantastic sense of humour to cope with life’s slings and arrows – and you don’t seem to be short of those – and I love reading a good rant! You’re welcome here any time. 🙂