Trace Elements by Donna Leon – review

Published by Arrow

Publication date – 24 September 2020

Source – own copy

‘They killed him. It was bad money.’ A dying hospice patient gasps these cryptic words about her recently-deceased husband. Brunetti softly promises he will look into what appears to be a private family tragedy. He discovers that her husband worked for a company that monitored the cleanliness of Venice’s water supply and that he had died in a motorcycle accident.

Distracted briefly by Vice Questore Patta’s obsession with youth crime in Venice, Brunetti turns to the remarkable research skills of Patta’s secretary, Signora Elettra Zorzi. With her help, Brunetti comes to realize the perilous meaning in the dying woman’s accusation and the threat it reveals to the health of the entire region.

Brunetti and his colleague Claudia Griffoni are called to the bedside of a dying women. Her words “They killed him. It was bad money”.  Brunetti discovers her husband died in a motor cycle accident. As he investigates further he discovers there is more to the death than appears. Could it be linked to the husband’s work at a company monitoring water supply?

The thing with the Brunetti series is there isn’t always an obvious crime to be investigated. There may be the hint of one, something vague that catches Brunetti’s interests and makes him want to find out more. The stories are usually a commentary on world issues, or at least Italian issues. Corruption, nepotism, environmental issues, the troubles caused by tourists and giant cruise liners. These are all mentioned and all form part of the wide narrative.

These books are as much about the characters as they are about the stories. The meals Brunetti eats with his wife and children are enough to make the mouth water, his easy relationship with his colleagues Vianello, Griffoni and Signorina Elettra, are things that draw the reader in as much as the investigations. Brunetti is a man driven by morals, but also aware of the limits of his powers and the Italian justice system. Often times he has to chose the path of least resistance rather than the most ideal one. Sometimes things are wrapped up nicely and often times there are things left hanging, much like in real life. As in Trace Elements, the reader sees Brunetti’s frustration at systems, at how long cases take to progress through the system and at the likely results makes things often seem futile.

Brunetti’s family does not appear as much in this instalment, and I perhaps missed them a little because of it. The story is not one with a fast pace. There is no high body count or blood and gore. This is a gentler paced story, seeing the investigation progress, as Brunetti uncovers the likely truth of what happened to the dying woman’s husband. I personally love the author’s style, it is very much the journey there not the destination that is the focus of the tale.

Trace Elements deals with the water supply and treatment and possible environmental implications of chemical runoff. It doesn’t sound the most exciting of topics and did lose me in a few places, but it also seemed to do that to the characters too. What the reader is left with is the sense that certain crimes go undetected or even if found, often go unpunished, due as much to the machinations of the system as to any evidential burden.

It’s hard to explain why I enjoy this series so much, and it is no different when trying to describe my thoughts on Trace Elements. Sometimes a reader comes across a book they just like, instinctively. There is something about the way the author describes a scene, the characters they have created or the tone of writing that just appeals. That is the case with the Brunetti series. They make me happy to read them and sometimes that is enough.

I am always left feeling slightly lost, wondering why I’m not actually in Venice, wandering the calles and bridges, dodging the tourists with Brunetti and sitting down to dinner with the family. I read these books as much for the characters as for the story, perhaps more so. Following them over 29 investigations has seen the reader watch Brunetti’s family grow, as seen his friendships develop and seen Brunetti learn how to manage the unreasonable unscrupulous Scarpa and his boss Patta.

A joy to read as always. I’m already missing all of my Italian friends.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    I feel exactly the same: this is my kind of comfort reading (even if the crimes and the tales of Italian corruption are not comforting).


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