Suffer the Little Children By Donna Leon
Happy are the readers of the Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery novels of Donna Leon. It seems that we have the pleasure of reading a new one every year now, and the earlier ones are being re-issued just as regularly. The most recent are Suffer the Little Children, new in hardcover, and last year's Through a Glass Darkly, which is now in paperback. This new book is just as satisfying a novel as the earlier books in the series, if a little sadder. Brunetti is woken in the middle of the night and told that a local doctor has been hospitalized after being beaten by the police - the Italian Carabinieri, not the Venice city police associated with Brunetti. The doctor has been accused of illegally adopting a child, one of many people being investigated by the Carabinieri. At the same time as this investigation, Brunetti is involved in a fraud case, pharmacists who are making false referrals to specialists, who in turn are billing the government for appointments made, but patients never seen.
As always, the reader is transported to the city of Venice by Donna Leon. There are always wonderful, obscure, little facts about the city revealed by her characters. Brunetti's secretary, Elettra, mourns the loss of the original paving stones in some parts of Venice "when they raised the sidewalks against the aqua alta, they dug up all the masegni, the ones that had been there for centuries…they replaced them with machine cut, perfectly rectangular stones, every one a living example of just how perfect four right angles can be."
We follow Brunetti through the streets and alleyways as he observes his city. One morning, very early, he leaves the Ospedale Civile, and walks along the Fondamente Nuove where he stops to gaze at the mountains in the distance; seldom seen, it is only on a very clear day, early in the morning, that these mountains are on view – a spectacular sight when seen for the first time, and always a delight. It is easy in Venice to notice the recent Eastern European tourists, as Brunetti does when "he studied them as they walked past him: sallow complexions: blonde hair, either natural or assisted in that direction: cheap shoes, one remove from cardboard; plastic jackets that had been dyed and treated in an unsuccessful attempt to make them resemble leather. Probably too poor to buy most of what they saw, they still gazed about them with respect and awe and unbridled delight. With their cheap clothes and their bad haircuts and their packed lunches, who knew what it cost them to come here? They were so unlike the jaded Americans…" And what might these Eastern Europeans do to stay in the West - sell their babies to those who are unable to have their own? That is for Brunetti to discover.
As Brunetti traverses his city in search of the answers he stops for coffee or a glass of wine and some tramezzino. On a whim slips into a church or a gallery where "he found himself standing at the foot of the bridge that led to the entrance to Palazzo Querini Stampalia." On this visit he is drawn to the paintings of mother and child as he puzzled over what it is that makes a parent, and the suffering of losing a child, at any age. And what must the suffering be like for the children who are removed from a home - a home where the adoptive parents, legal or not, have loved the child, have become parents.
This is a novel that questions legality, morality and ethics. Brunetti is constantly questioning right and wrong in moral and ethical terms as he makes decisions about what action, if any, he should take in the cases he investigates. It is perhaps this exploration of conscience that makes a Donna Leon mystery a cut above the rest - and of course the opportunity for the reader to travel, even for a few hours, to the always fascinating city of Venice.