Fresh Meat: Beastly Things by Donna Leon

Beastly Things by Donna LeonBeastly Things by Donna Leon is a Commissario Guido Brunetti of Venice mystery (available April 3, 2012).

In Beastly Things, Donna Leon’s detective Guido Brunetti, Commissario di Polizia of the city of Venice, manages to retain his romantic side despite the intrigues, deceptions, and lies of the government because he feels fortunate to live amidst the splendor that is Venice. This long running yet still fresh series (Beastly Things is the twenty-first since Death at La Fenice in 1992) is testament to the author’s skill at keeping her detective both idealistic and sympathetic.

Brunetti’s new case involves a slaughterhouse and its shoddy safety practices. Animal rights and the ethics of meat consumption have become all-consuming issues at the Venice Questura, and the beastly things of the title refer to more than animals. Brunetti, often disheartened by his government’s corruption, frequently, silently, rages at his own powerlessness in the face of it.

Government ministers were arrested with frightening frequency; the head of the government himself boasted, in the middle of a deepening financial crisis, that he didn’t have financial worries and had nineteen houses; Parliament was reduced to an open sewer. And where were the angry mobs in the piazzas? Who stood up in Parliament to discuss the bold-faced looting of the country? But let a young and virginal girl be killed and the country wend mad; slash a throat and the press was off and running for days. What will was left among the public that had not been destroyed by television and the penetrant vulgarity of the current administration?

Into the muck, though, Brunetti must wade, for what he finds at the slaughterhouse turns out to be a criminal act of staggering proportions. Brunetti and his team are attempting to solve the murder of a man who has been dumped into a canal with no wallet and wearing one expensive shoe. Although the corpse has been so damaged by its time in the water that it becomes almost impossible to identify, an autopsy shows that the man had suffered from the rare Madelung’s disease, which causes disfigurement including thickness in the neck and chest. With this information, visits to several shoe stores, and finally a trip outside Venice to Mestre, the man is identified as Dottor Andrea Nava, a veterinarian.

Nava was hired to certify that the animals due to be slaughtered for consumption were healthy. For a tour of the place as part of his investigation, Brunetti and his detective Vianello don white jumpsuits and shoe covers. The gruesome slaughterhouse scenes are too much for Vianello who leaves after his first few minutes.

These scenes will likely have some discomfiting impact on readers as well; vegetarians will double down on their commitment to a meat free diet, and even devoted carnivores will probably stop more frequently at the produce section of Whole Foods.

It’s not just the slaughterhouse that causes Brunetti uneasiness; it is the town of Mestre itself which is on terra firma. People have cars, and they drive them.

Brunetti marvelled again at how it was possible for people to live like this: driving around in cars, getting stuck behind long columns of other cars, eternal victims of the vagaries of traffic. And the air, and the noise, and the overwhelming ugliness of what he passed. No wonder drivers were prone to violence: how could they not be?

All the horrors fade for Brunetti, though, when he focuses on the beauty of Venice. On his trips to and from Mestre, he looks in wonder at the sights he has seen a thousand times before: the Rialto Bridge, the Basilica, the Dogana and Church of the Salute.

“What would it be, Brunetti tried imagine, to see all of this for the first time? Virgin eyes? It came to him that this assault of beauty” ravished the viewer. And so it does. There’s no city in the world quite like Venice, and that Brunetti, after a lifetime spent amidst its splendor, can be awestruck still at its beauty keeps me coming back for more of Donna Leon, Guido Brunetti, and Venice.

Susan Amper, author of How to Write About Edgar Allan Poe, still mourns the loss of her Nancy Drew collection.

Read all Susan Amper’s posts on Criminal Element.

See coverage of more new releases in our Fresh Meat series.


  1. Lakis Fourouklas

    I have read this a couple of months ago and I really loved it. Leon, though American, really writes like an Italian author and has a great eye for detail. And Brunetti is a very likeable character, with his love for food and wine and his willingness to do all that he possibly can to bring the guilty parts to justice.

  2. s.amper

    Leon has what I want, a job in Venice and 25 years spent roaming its environs.

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