Blood from a Stone (Commissario Brunetti #14) by Donna Leon

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The last Brunetti mystery I read (Doctored Evidence) left me feeling mostly cold. By then, I had read several of Leon’s mysteries in rapid succession and was tired of her formula. But when I was in the library last week, browsing through the mystery section, I decided to revisit the Brunetti series. Even when the mysteries themselves aren’t thrilling, I always enjoy reading about Leon’s non-tourist view of Venice.

Another factor that made me choose this particular book (which, apparently, comes right after Doctored Evidence in the series, something I just learned now) was the intriguing setup: the mystery centers on the immigrant African men who can be seen selling knockoff handbags in every major Italian city (Brunetti & Co. refer to them as the vu cumpra). When one of them is shot dead by professional killers in the middle of the street while selling his bags, Commissario Brunetti is on the case.

I wanted to read this particular book because the world of the vu cumpra sounded like such a fascinating and unexplored subject for a mystery novel. Brunetti and his colleagues know almost nothing about the men who live illegally in Venice, selling counterfeit bags and vanishing at the first sight of police. What, I wondered, would come to light about these men over the course of the investigation? I was excited to learn more about the lives of this overlooked community.

And that’s the first problem we run into. Throughout the story, the vu cumpra remain distinctly foreign, and their Otherness is remarked upon constantly. There’s a sense that Leon wanted to prove a point about unfair prejudices shown towards these men, but she’s wildly inconsistent in this regard. Early on, there’s a scene where Brunetti’s daughter comments that her father shouldn’t be wasting so much time on the murder investigation because the dead man is “only a vu cumpra.” Brunetti’s wife freaks out, understandably, and she and Brunetti spend a lot of time discussing how their daughter could have become so bigoted. So that was fine, and I was glad that Leon was addressing the attitude towards the vendors, but at the same time there’s this constant fetishization of the vu cumpra (Brunetti is constantly marveling at how goddamn black they are, and another character, in what I’m sure was supposed to be a positive moment, gushes about how “beautiful” the men are) and remarks like “they all look the same, don’t they?” pass without comment by any other characters.

We never even learn anything about the inner world of the vu cumpra. Brunetti interviews the victim’s colleagues one time, and they never get be heard from again. Also, notice how I keep referring to the dead man as “the victim”? That’s because, for the duration of the 276-page book, we never learn his name. I’m sure there was a reason for this – maybe Leon was trying to make a point about the anonymity of the men – but if you’re trying to show often-overlooked and misunderstood characters in a new and sympathetic light, giving them names is a good start. It was disheartening to watch Brunetti investigate the murder and keep referring to the victim as “the black man.”

Perhaps worst of all, halfway through the book Brunetti’s daughter shows up with her convenient new Iranian friend, and the girl is invited over for lunch so we can watch everyone being all racially sensitive. It’s the equivalent of “I’m not racist – see, I have a black friend!” and fifty bucks says that the Iranian friend will never make an appearance in another book after this.

I could forgive all of this (probably) if the mystery was at all compelling, but it isn’t. Over the course of the investigation, Brunetti discovers that the killing goes much higher than he could have ever imagined (blood diamonds and the Mafia are involved, because why the fuck not) and is quickly shut out of the case. He keeps poking around, of course, but the problem is that he never even gets close to the truth, and is left to just be told how everything fit together later by another character. In fact, the eventual solution made no sense and was, ultimately, kind of stupid.

It’s disappointing, because I loved the first Brunetti mystery, Death at La Fenice, so much. Maybe I need to try looking up some earlier Brunetti mysteries – they seem to be getting worse as the series progresses.

Verdict: two out of five stars

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