There is always doubt mixed with anticipation before diving into the latest in a favorite mystery series. The uncertainty is always there -- will it deliver the same fascination as previous books? Or will it disappoint?
"Drawing Conclusions" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 260 pages, $24) is the 20th of Donna Leon's crime mysteries set in Venice. Super-smart police investigator Guido Brunetti is on call again, this time to investigate the death of an older woman. Something compels him to look further even though the cause is officially ruled a heart attack.
Brunetti's beat is appealing: the glorious city of Venice and the seamy, corrupt underside that often defines it. Leon's familiar characters are here: Brunetti himself, shrewd but sensitive; and, at the Questura (police headquarters), his vain, self-centered boss, Patta, and nasty errand boy, Lt. Scarpa. The good guys at headquarters are also here, the keen-witted and redoubtable Signorina Elletra, from whom no database is safe, and his reliable sidekick Sgt. Vianello. Brunetti's family -- brilliant wife Paola and their two teenage children -- play a somewhat lesser role.
You follow Brunetti, literally, through the city as he pursues several threads that could expose a crime. The vagaries of Brunetti's mind are open to you as his suspicions gather, but you're not sure of either motive or killer until Brunetti figures it out. The beauties and customs of the city, combined with the continuing battle between violence and justice, are ever-present.
One charm of Leon's mysteries is that Brunetti's maneuverings through the city by "calle" or "vaporetto" are absolutely authentic. You can read these books with a map of Venice at hand. If he stops at a coffee bar, that coffee bar is actually there. Donna Leon, an American, has lived in Venice for 30 years.
Brunetti himself reads ancient historians such as Livy and Tacitus for relaxation. "Why?" I asked Leon when I interviewed her in Venice several years ago. "He reads what I read," she said.
The compelling characters and complex plot in Leon's "Drawing Conclusions" place it among her best. The atmosphere of the city, along with Leon's sharp insights and powerful narrative, validate her often-recognized status as a master of literary crime fiction.
Merle Minda is a Twin Cities travel writer.
- Donna Leon will be at Barnes & Noble Galleria in Edina at 7 p.m. April 13.