Unto Us a Son is Given by Donna Leon – review

Published by William Heinemann

Publication date – 7 March 2019

Source – free review copy

As a favour to his wealthy father-in-law, the Count Falier, Commissario Guido Brunetti agrees to investigate the seemingly innocent wish of the Count’s best friend, the elderly and childless Gonzalo, to adopt a younger man as his son. Under Italian inheritance laws, this man would become the sole heir to Gonzalo’s substantial fortune, something which Gonzalo’s friends, including the Count, find appalling. For his part, Brunetti wonders why the old man can’t be allowed his pleasure in peace.

Not long after Brunetti meets with Gonzalo, the elderly man unexpectedly passes away from natural causes. Old and frail, Gonzalo’s death goes unquestioned, and a few of his oldest friends gather in Venice to plan the memorial service.

But when Berta, a striking woman and one of Gonzalo’s closest confidantes, is strangled in her hotel room, Brunetti is drawn into long-buried secrets from Gonzalo’s past. What did Berta know? And who would go to such lengths to ensure it would remain hidden?

Commissario Guido Brunetti’s father in law, il Conte Falier, has asked Brunetti to check into rumours surrounding his friend Gonzalo. It would appear that Gonzalo, a wealthy older man, wants to adopt a much younger man as his son. Under Italian inheritance law, this man would then become the heir to the majority of Gonzalo’s wealth. Brunetti meets with Gonzalo and not long after the older man dies. When Gonzalo’s friend Berta arrives in Venice for his memorial she is murdered. It falls to Brunetti to discover why.

Here Donna Leon has taken a unique legal issue and turned it into the catalyst for her story. How entertaining can a book that revolves around the inheritance laws of Italy be? Very is the answer.

This book, in fact this series, is a crime novel where the crime is secondary. It is, of course, the driving force of the story, but one which becomes almost incidental. Here the murder doesn’t occur until nearly two-thirds the way through the book but the story is no less entertaining because of it. In fact the reader, or this one at least, almost forgets there is supposed to be a crime taking place.

The Brunetti series is much more than a crime series. It’s characters make it. As the series progresses the reader watches Brunetti’s children grow up, see his friendships develop and follow him as he falls even more in love with his wife.  He is an atypical fictional detective. He loves his wife, has a happy home. He’s not a seasoned drinker, except of course for the odd glass of grappa or wine with dinner. He is passionate about his job, aware of the foibles and limitations of his profession and frustrated by both the political machinations of his country and of the visitors to his city.

I have said before that the characters are the real stars of this series. They are, in my opinion, the driving force behind the books. The reader returns time and again because of the relationships between Brunetti and the people who intersect his life. Signorina Elettra is the planet around which everyone else in the Questura orbits. Brunetti is shaken to find she is going on annual leave and from the day she departs the building works on units of time measured in her return to work.

Patta, Brunetti’s boss and thorn in his side, is seen in a slightly different light. He seeks Brunetti’s help on a personal matter that shows him to care for someone other than himself. And shows that he’s not as blind to the extra curricular skills of Signorina Elettra as he had led them all to believe.

Brunetti is not one prone to chasing suspects across a city or being struck by the sudden realisation of all the clues falling into place, the red herrings left behind. There are no red herrings, there are no deep insights or strokes of luck that reveal who the perpetrator was. If he went running after a suspect he’d be more likely to end up in the Grand Canal.

Donna Leon does not shy away from using her books to comment on environmental matters or as a commentary on the political corruption and occasional ineptitude of her adopted country. The police are often thwarted in their abilities to do their jobs by political red tape. The public are wary of helping, a fear borne over many years of assisting a government department. This latest book offers a fascinating insight into an area of Italian law that I knew nothing about and how people will try to circumvent such laws. There are other facets of Italian society shown, from the expected actions of children towards their elders, the consideration of friends and family and how business operates on a day to day basis.

The stories of the series feel real. The people feel real, the location easily summoned in the mind’s eye. As in real life there are times when things don’t wrap up neatly. Real life doesn’t always deliver a happy ending, or rightful condemnation and so on occasion in this series there is no rightful punishment, just quietly festering resentment that life doesn’t always comply with one’s wishes. Even when the right person is caught, and punishment is promised just off the page, the reader is still left with a disquiet, a sadness that humans have quietly been destroying themselves and others for centuries and will go on doing so.

This is book 28 in the series. If you’ve not read the other 27 then treat yourself. I envy anyone who has the whole back story to discover, a series of characters to fall in love with and many a Venetian calle to wander down.

I pick up every new Brunetti book with the sound of my soul singing at its return. It is with indescribable mixture of satisfaction and sadness that I turn the final page. Unto Us a Son is Given was no different. As always, a joy to read.

About the author

Donna Leon was named by The Times as one of the 50 Greatest Crime Writers. She is an award-winning crime novelist, celebrated for the bestselling Brunetti series. Donna has lived in Venice for thirty years and previously lived in Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China, where she worked as a teacher. Donna’s books have been translated into 35 languages and have been published around the world. Her previous novels featuring Commissario Brunetti have all been highly acclaimed; including Friends in High Places, which won the CWA Macallan Silver Dagger for Fiction, Fatal Remedies, Doctored Evidence, A Sea of Troubles and Beastly Things.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Brilliant review. Agree totally. Have been reading these books for some years. I am seeing Donna Leon at a local book signing next month and am taking my 82 year old father in law who also loves the series.


    1. janetemson says:

      Oh what a treat to actually meet her. I hope you and your dad have a great time 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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