(Picked up mostly for Italian inspiration.) Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti books are a long-running cozy series set largely in Venice. The debut, “Death at La Fenice,” finds the likable Brunetti, (who’s practically a transplanted Maigret) investigating the murder of a German conductor who is poisoned halfway through a production of “La Traviata” at the (real life) Phoenix theatre. Brunetti is an instantly engaging character, sardonic but moral, and his family, (wife Paola and two rascally kids) are just as likable as he is. The setting is great, of course: it has all of the sights of Venice, none of the smells. Less distinguished is the plot that fulfills the basic needs of a whodunit but goes no further than that.
The second Brunetti mystery, “Death in a Strange Country,” deals with the body of an American soldier who’s found floating on the Venetian canals. The investigation takes Guido to an American military post north of Venice, where he faces Army bureaucrats who are too eager to provide him with easy answers to the murder. “Death in a Strange Country” is a marked improvement on the first novel, partly because it takes on serious matters of corruption and interventionism, and partly because it deviates from strict whodunit rules: the “bad guys” do not necessarily get their comeuppance, because that would involve Brunetti standing up to American military presence in Italy. Brunetti is not that Quixotic.
RATING: GOOD ENOUGH and COOL!