Guido Brunetti is having dinner with Vice-Questore Patta and Lieutenant Scarpa, forced into this social occasion ostensibly to discuss promotions. Guido is praying for the end of the world or, at least, some violent distraction by armed intruders so that he could grab a gun and rid himself of the two men. Brunetti is not a a violent man but dealing with these men at the Questura is one thing, dealing with them on his own time is something else again.
When his cell phone rings, Brunetti thinks it might be his wife, calling him in order to offer him a pretext for leaving. Instead, it is a real call is from the Questura. A woman has been found dead in her apartment, within walking distance of the restaurant. Neither Patta nor Scarpa would ever answer such a call, so Guido is free to leave and do his job as required. He arrives to learn that Anna Maria Giusti, returning from a few days in Sicily, had gone to her neighbor’s apartment to collect her mail. Signora Altavilla, a retired teacher in her sixties, is dead. There is some blood near her head but there are no signs of overt violence.
Brunetti has been doing his job for a long time but he has not become jaded. “A short time later, the men emerged with a stretcher, the form on it covered by a dark blue blanket. Brunetti was glad to see that the blanket was clean and freshly ironed, though he knew it made no difference.” Doctor Rizzardi, the pathologist, refuses to give Brunetti any opinion on the cause and manner of death but Guido “has a feeling” that something other than natural causes is at play. Inspecting her apartment, the police discover packages of unopened women’s underwear in a variety of sizes and individually wrapped toiletries The quiet schoolteacher opened her home as a safe haven for battered women. Men who attack the women they know would not be likely to have qualms about attacking a woman they didn’t know.
As the police continue learning about the dead woman, they discover another aspect of her life, another example of her altruism. She was a frequent visitor to a home for the aged, a willing listener to the stories told by people in their latest years. The director describes Signora Altavilla as a “confessor”, hearing things that people would never tell members of their families. “Madre Rosa referred to her terrible honesty….”. The confessor believed that absolution required restitution of goods and of reputations. Perhaps someone was afraid of the knowledge she had for even old stories can be dangerous.
In this book, there is one crime but two strands that lead to it. Leon again wraps the story around societal problems. Signora Altavilla was poking at the people who live in the shadows, those who abuse women and those who take advantage of the elderly. Brunetti is the heart of the story as he is in all the books in the series. He has not lost his humanity and he does not close his eyes to the difficulties imposed by following the letter of the law. His partnership with Signorina Elettra, the force behind the Venice police, has always led to criminal behavior. She steals information and he aids and abets her by using what she finds. Together, they work for the people of their city in ways best not investigated. Their’s is a business relationship, evolving over the years as they deal with the bureaucrats responsible for serving the best justice money can buy.
Leon seasons the story with moments that reflect Brunetti’s compassion, principles, and love of the ordinary things in life. As the family gathers for dinner, “It simply filled Brunetti’s heart to have them there and to be able to see and hear them, knowing they were safe and warm and well-fed.” He wants nothing less for the people who come into his professional life, whether old or young, wealthy or not. He is from the working class and married into the ruling class. He knows that despite their differences, he and his father-in-law are kindred spirits when it comes to family. The battered women have no family to whom they can turn. The elderly have their welfare in the hands of strangers. Guido wants to protect them as he protects his own children.
When one of the strands leads back to events fifty years before, Brunetti has to look at a basic truth from which choices are made. “…even the worst of men wanted to be perceived as better than they were.” History is always being re-written by those who abandoned conscience for cash and convenience. As Brunetti discusses bad choices made in order to bring about a positive result, he thinks of Henry of Navarre. In 1589, when the French Protestant was the last man standing in the line for the throne of France, he had to return to the Catholic Church in order to be crowned king. Henry, eager to be Henry IV, said “Paris is worth a Mass.” For Guido life in twenty-first century Italy is about the end justifying the means.
Donna Leon fills every page with details that can be spoilers. As with all the Brunetti books, DRAWING CONCLUSIONS moves very quickly. Leon is another author whose books beg to be read at one sitting. She does not provide pat endings but she provides endings that are true to her character. Brunetti is a rock. He may be worn by storms but they never change the essence of the decent man that he is.