Unto Us A Son Is Given

Donna Leon

Heinemann, £13.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

If daffodils are in bloom, then it’s time for a new Donna Leon novel. Almost without fail, since 1992, the American novelist and long-time resident of Venice has produced a fresh instalment of her Commissario Brunetti crime series in time for spring. This latest offering gives no hint that Leon now lives in Switzerland, although the increasingly sour reflections in recent novels about the state of Venice perhaps explain her move.

The Brunetti novels might not set a record for an uninterrupted crime series, but with the exception of Inspector Maigret, I know of no sleuth as enduring. It might be true to say that Leon takes her cue from Simenon, in making a city the fulcrum of her stories, and her policeman the eyes through which we see it. But there the comparisons must end. As is all too evident in Unto Us a Son is Given, Leon’s literary credentials, which were never strong, are growing weaker. This is not to deny that Simenon, and other prolific crime writers, have their duds. I recently read an early Maigret that had a plot so over-wrought, it was toe-curling.

In his 29th outing, the Guido Brunetti we first met in Death at La Fenice, is typically pensive. Never averse to slipping out for a relaxed lunch at home, where he’ll read a chapter of the classics, he manages to convey efficiency and probity, while depending on younger members of staff to explain and undertake e-surveillance or anything else high-tech. Essentially he is still attuned to the times of Euripides.

When, in this ponderous tale, a murder is eventually committed, it is far too late to inject momentum. Tellingly, Brunetti does not think until the following day that he ought to have asked for CCTV footage of the hotel where it took place. All watchers of TV crime will be shouting at him as he heads home wearily, to sip verbena tea laced with cognac. Is it a sign that Brunetti’s career is waning? He certainly might be thinking that way, as he reflects on other oversights he made that night after examining the corpse and questioning witnesses.

The leaden plot revolves around Gonzalo, a friend of Paola’s father, Count Falier. An elderly art collector, Gonzalo has decided to adopt a far younger man, who will eventually become his heir. That this man might also be his lover is hardly scandalous in a country where the law permits adult children, whose parents are alive, to be adopted by others. What perturbs Gonzalo’s friends is that his chosen one might be a money-grabber.

Beneath this far from compelling strand is another that, like a radio suffering static, unpredictably stutters into life and dies. Brunetti’s boss, Vice-Questore Patta, is having terrible trouble with his neighbours. What looks like a promising keyhole on Venetian tenement life sadly features too erratically. I could have taken a whole novel on this one theme.

Most evident and damning of all, however, is the dull, or lazy, structure. Dialogue is flat, and the inspector’s reflections feel tired and lame. “As he started down towards his office, Brunetti thought about how taking a look at one’s unconscious motives and prejudices was like walking barefoot in cloudy water: you never knew whether you were going to step on something disgusting or bang your toe into a rock.”

This all sounds as jaded as Leon’s view of Venice, but to wave this novel through without complaint would not do justice to Leon’s punchy earlier books. As has been growing increasingly evident, her sparkle and fire have faded. Unto Us A Son Is Given raises the question that dogs every long-running series: when to pull the plug. Unless characters evolve or situations change, there is only so much of the familiar that a novelist can serve up. Rambling around Venice, with its patrician class on one side of the Rialto Bridge and ordinary mortals on the other, is not sufficient on its own.

There was a time when Leon’s obvious fascination with the city gave her series its edge. Now, it feels as if we’re left only with the ripples, as a boat speeds her away, leaving dirty water sloshing in her wake, before subsiding into nothing.