Book Review: Trace Elements by Donna Leon
By Ray PalenMarch 25, 2020
In the 29th novel in Donna Leon’s Comissario Guido Brunetti series, a dying woman’s last words spark an investigation that could threaten the entire population of Venice.
It feels beyond surreal to be reviewing this novel. Not just because of how drastically our world has changed in just a matter of weeks but that this fantastic series from author Donna Leon is set in Venice, Italy. Italy, currently, is a war zone of panic with streets emptied and major landmarks looking like ghost towns. For some terrible reason, Italy is the country that has been hit the hardest by the COVID-19 outbreak.
Of course, none of this was known by Donna Leon at the time she penned Trace Elements, the 29th installment in what has become my favorite crime/mystery series — the Commissario Guido Brunetti novels. This does not mean that this beautiful and highly visited part of Italy is not facing some issues that are out of its control. Well prior to talk of COVID-19, Venice had been subjected to the worst flooding in recent memory. The Palazzo as well as most side-streets frequented by tourists were all but impassable and we see a bit off these constraints reflected in the conversations between Guido Brunetti and his colleagues and neighbors.
The one thing that readers have come to expect from this series is that not only was some crime solved and a form of justice handed out, but Donna Leon always took the time to address matters of a higher calling. Brunetti, his Professor wife and many of his colleagues at the Questura are invested in things other than the day-to-day life of a Commissario and these ethical, moral, and physical issues always get their play in these novels. Justice means different things to different people.
At the start of Trace Elements, Brunetti and his colleague, Claudia Griffoni, are called out to the bedside of a dying elderly woman named Benedetta Toso. As they question her at the hospice she is living out her last days at, they find that her chief issue was that her late husband, Vittorio Fadalto, was murdered. Fadalto, who had been killed in a motorcycle accident, worked as a water sample expert. More specifically, the company that he worked for utilized him to collect samples and check for any form of contamination. Benedetta Toso’s claim is that her late husband had uncovered something so huge that it could impact most of the inhabitants of the Venice area and beyond. As her dying wish, in addition to the claim being so fantastic, Brunetti and Griffoni promised to see this investigation out even beyond Toso’s short life-span.
There is always one or more side storylines in each of these great novels and this one finds Brunetti being annoyed by his mostly pompous and incompetent boss, Vice Questore Patta. Patta wants him to chase down two young pickpockets that might impact tourism in the area if not found. As a voracious reader, I always appreciate any references to literature in a novel. Trace Elements finds Guido Brunetti requiring some respite from these especially taxing cases and he does this by diving into one of the best Greek tragedies — the play The Eumenides by Aeschylus.
With the help of one of my favorite characters in this series — Pata’s assistant Signora Elettra Zorzi — who is an expert at any type of required research, Brunetti gets the answers he requires, but they are not all answers that he was hoping for. With the health of so many residents of Venice at risk, Trace Elements presents Brunetti with one of the most significant cases he has ever faced. Needless to say, I loved every minute of it. Ciao!