Hadlow Down Book Club Review – August ’23

Life doesn’t have a narrator – it’s full of lies and half-truths – so we never know anything for sure, not really. I like that” The Temptation of Forgiveness Donna Leon (2018).

We decided to read something lighter this month, and chose Trace Elements (2020), by Donna Leon. No doubt some of you will be familiar with her long-running series, set in Venice and featuring the Commissario (Detective Superintendent) Guido Brunetti, his wife Paola and his team in the Questura (police headquarters).

Brunetti came from a very poor family, but his upbringing has given him a compassionate nature and a strong sense of morality which is reinforced by his obsessive reading of the Greek classics. He met Paola at University: she was the only daughter of a wealthy, influential, aristocratic family and now teaches English Literature at the English University. She has an acerbic wit and leftish leanings which sometimes lead Brunetti into moral dilemmas. She seeks relief from lazy students and complacent colleagues in reading and re-reading her beloved Henry James. Despite her strong feminism, she enjoys cooking for Brunetti and  their two children – one of the pleasures of the novels are the accounts of the delicious meals she prepares. Together they form one of the happiest and most satisfying marriages in detective fiction.

Brunetti is supported by a cast of memorable characters in the Questura, most notable of whom is the secretary Elettra. Beautiful, duplicitous and with amazing skills on the computer, she is probably the one who really runs the Questura. Donna Leon clearly takes pleasure in describing Elettra’s vibrant outfits which light up the books. She stands in contrast to Patta, the Head of the Questura who is handsome, vain, lazy and easily outwitted by Elettra and Brunetti.


The reader in search of a page-turning thriller or a detective novel scattered with red herrings will be disappointed. These are issue-led novels and Leon has confessed that she is more interested in language than plot. They are stories in which individuals are often the victims of powerful institutions and vested interests, so that investigating what seems like a one-off crime leads to the uncovering of a whole underlying web of deceit and corruption. In Trace Elements, for instance, a privatised water company colludes in covering up the pollution of the river by chemicals dumped by a big factory, In other novels Brunetti is up against the Mafia, powerful companies, the army. Corruption and political incompetence go hand-in-hand with Leon’s preoccupation, damage to the environment, evinced by what is being inflicted on her beloved city of Venice.

For the beauty of Venice is at the heart of the novels. Leon reveals it with a light touch, as Brunetti glances out of a window to look towards a palazzo or a vista of a canal. His investigations take him down shady alleys and past crumbling buildings, decaying but beautiful. This is no romantic account, however: it is a city in the stranglehold of tourism, suffocated by people shuffling their way over the bridges and walkways; shops selling tourist rubbish and huge cruisers edging their way up the Grand Canal leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

Brunetti must seek to uncover the layers of vested interests, helped by Elettra hacking into records of companies and government departments. He is also sometimes helped by his father-in-law who may have an insider’s knowledge or is in a position to make discreet enquiries. But Brunetti is not always successful, and sometimes the perpetrator of the crime is unpunished. In this novel, he faces the dilemma of whether to arrest the perpetrator of the lesser or the greater crime.

Most of us enjoyed the novel although perhaps it was not the best introduction to her work. We love the novels and the world they create as well as her subtle use of language, the rhythms of the dialogue and her memorable characters. We recommend them to readers unfamiliar with this author.

Next month: member’s choice of holiday reading, no meeting in August.

Heather Mines