This is the latest in Leon’s Venice police procedurals – so expect Guido Brunetti older but substantially the same – native Venice born – still with wife Paola and family. He is still deeply embedded in his city and community as it moves into the 21st century with all the challenges of multiculturalism and a local economy heavily dependent on massive international tourism that is having major impacts on both the locals and the environment. He also knows how to “play” the internal politics of the police system and the complex Italian administration system – or should one say nightmare. In this tale he will work with Commissario Claudia Griffoni, transferred from Naples and finding it hard to cope with the heat of the city – or is it global warming? But the “old guard” of police from previous novels – Vianello, Secretary Elettra and the problematic Vice Questore Pata who still needs to be managed – will also re-appear as he explores a possible “crime”.

He has been asked to speak to Benedetta, 38, a woman dying in a local hospice – she enigmatically talks about “bad money”. Her husband, who worked in a company providing water to the city and surrounding area under a seemingly illegal contract, has been killed in a motorbike “accident”. Following the trail of the tale that he is told and trying to untangle the realities of what is really happening Brunetti will have to consider the implications of death, the cost of medical expenses that are way beyond many and have serious implications for the ill and their families at the same time as he has to determine whether a crime has been committed.

The husband was employed monitoring water quality in the Venice hinterland – following procedures there should be fail safes and overlarge concentrations of toxic chemicals should be reported to the government for action. The novel allows the exploration of these procedures and, of course, how they can be avoided and corrupted. But Brunetti will be aware of the scale of any failings against the wider environmental degradation that is occurring around him every day – not least set against the wider growing awareness of the scale of human impact on the planet – its dangers to all ecosystems and ultimately to people themselves. The underlying tropes will be are the systems we have suitable or responsive enough to deal with the issues assuming that they are even admitted. But also who is responsible for overall environmental degradation and at what scale and will they act or not to change destructive behaviour.

Without giving away the plot it is difficult to discuss this further, but Brunetti will have to make decisions as to whether he will take action/actions as a policeman and if so which and what. But behind that – presented through his thoughts – is the wider discussion of whether a person can or will act in a way to protect us from the greater “crime” of allowing the world to go into environmental or economic meltdown – with the most serious impacts on the poorer and more vulnerable of our communities. So yes, this is a police “procedural”, but is much more than that. Is it despondent or is it a wake-up call? Perhaps very much dependent on your beliefs and whether you think the actions of an individual are significant and can change things for the better. Brunetti can stand as the filter or enhancer of your own concerns and thoughts on the need to act.

Hilary White 5/5

Trace Elements by Donna Leon
William Heinemann 9781785152436 hbk Mar 2020