Rich with atmosphere and marvelous plotting, Death in a Strange Country is a superb novel in Donna Leon’s chilling Venetian mystery series.
About the Author
Date of Birth:February 28, 1942
Place of Birth:Montclair, New Jersey
Education:B.A., 1964; M.A. 1969; postgraduate work in English literature
Read an Excerpt
Death in a Strange Country
By Donna Leon
PENGUIN BOOKSCopyright © 1993 Donna Leon
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe body floated face down in the murky water of the canal. Gently, the ebbing tide tugged it along towards the open waters of the laguna that spread out beyond the end of the canal. The head bumped a few times against the moss-covered steps of the embankment in front of the Basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, lodged there for a moment, then shifted free as the feet swung out in a delicate balletic arc that pulled it loose and set it again drifting towards the open waters and freedom.
Close by, the bells of the church chimed four in the morning, and the waters slowed, as if ordered to do so by the bell.
Gradually, they slowed even more, until they reached that moment of utter stillness that separates the tides, when the waters wait for the new tide to take over the day's work. Caught in the calm, the limp thing bobbed on the surface of the water, dark-clad and invisible. Time passed in silence and then was broken by two men who walked by, chatting in soft voices filled with the easy sibilance of the Venetian dialect. One of them pushed a low cart loaded with newspapers which he was taking back to his newsstand to begin the day; the other was on his way to work in the hospital that took up one entire side of the vast open campo.
Out in the laguna, a small boat puttered past, and the tiny waves it raised rippled up the canal and toyed with the body, shifting it back up against the embankment wall.
As the bells chimed five, a woman in one of the houses that overlooked the canal and faced onto the campo flung open the dark-green shutters of her kitchen and turned back to lower the flaming gas under her coffee pot. Still not fully awake, she spooned sugar into a small cup, flipped off the gas with a practised motion of her wrist, and poured a thick stream of coffee into her cup. Cradling it in her hands, she walked back to the open window and, as she had every morning for decades, looked across at the giant equestrian statue of Colleoni, once the most fearsome of all Venetian military leaders, now her nearest neighbour. For Bianca Pianaro, this was the most peaceful moment of the day, and Colleoni, cast into eternal bronze silence centuries ago, the perfect companion for this precious, secret quarter-hour of silence.
Glad of its sharp warmth, she sipped at her coffee, watching the pigeons that had already begun to peck their way towards the base of the statue. Idly, she glanced directly below her, to where her husband's small boat bobbed in the dark-green water. It had rained in the night, and she looked to see if the canvas tarpaulin that covered the boat was still in place. If the tarpaulin had been pulled free by the wind, Nino would have to go down and bail the boat out before he went to work. She leaned out, providing herself a clear view of the bow. At first, she thought it was a bag of rubbish, swept from the embankment by the night's tide. But it was strangely symmetrical, elongated, with two branches sweeping out on either side of the central trunk, almost as if it were ...
'Oh, Dio,' she gasped and let her coffee cup fall into the waters below, not far from the strange shape floating face down in the canal. 'Nino, Nino,' she screamed, turning back towards their bedroom. 'There's a body in the canal.' It was this same message, 'There's a body in the canal', that woke Guido Brunetti twenty minutes later. He shifted up onto his left shoulder and pulled the phone onto the bed with him. 'Where?'
'Santi Giovanni e Paolo. In front of the hospital, sir,' answered the policeman who had called him as soon as the call came into the Questura.
'What happened? Who found him?' Brunetti asked, swinging his feet out from beneath the covers and sitting up on the edge of the bed.
'I don't know, sir. A man named Pianaro called to report it.'
'So why did you call me?' Brunetti asked, making no attempt to hide the irritation in his voice, the clear result of the time indicated on the glowing face of the clock beside the bed: five-thirty-one. 'What about the night shift? Isn't anyone there?'
'They've all gone home, sir. I called Bozzetti, but his wife said he wasn't home yet.' As he spoke, the young man's voice grew more and more uncertain. 'So I called you, sir, because I know you're working day shift.' Which, Brunetti reminded himself, began in two and a half hours. He said nothing.
'Are you there, sir?'
'Yes, I'm here. And it's five-thirty.'
'I know, sir,' the young man bleated. 'But I couldn't find anyone else.'
'All right. All right. I'll go down there and have a look. Send me a launch. Now.' Remembering the hour and the fact that the night shift had already gone off duty, he asked, 'Is there anyone who can bring it?'
'Yes, sir. Bonsuan just came in. Shall I send him?'
'Yes, right now. And call the rest of the day shift. Tell them to meet me there.'
'Yes, sir,' the young man responded, his relief audible at having someone take charge.
'And call Doctor Rizzardi. Ask him to meet me there as quickly as he can.'
'Yes, sir. Anything else, sir?'
'No, nothing. But send the launch. Right now. And tell the others, if they get there before I do, to close things off. Don't let anyone get near the body.' Even as they spoke, how much evidence was being destroyed, cigarettes dropped on the ground, shoes scuffed across the pavement? Without saying anything further, he hung up.
Beside him in the bed, Paola moved and looked up at him with one eye, the other covered by a naked arm against the invasion of light. She made a noise that long experience told him was an inquisitive one.
'A body. In a canal. They're coming to get me. I'll call.' The noise with which she acknowledged this was an affirmative one. She rolled onto her stomach and was asleep immediately, certainly the only person in the entire city uninterested in the fact that a body had been found floating in one of the canals.
He dressed quickly, decided not to spend the time shaving, and went into the kitchen to see if there was time for coffee. He opened the lid of the Moka Express and saw about an inch of coffee left over from the night before. Though he hated reheated coffee, he poured it into a saucepan and put it on a high flame, standing over it and waiting for it to boil. When it did, he poured the almost-viscous liquid into a cup, spooned in three sugars, and downed it quickly.
The bell to the apartment sounded, announcing the arrival of the police launch. He glanced at his watch. Eight minutes before six. It must be Bonsuan; no one else was capable of getting a boat here that quickly. He grabbed a wool jacket from the cupboard by the front door. September mornings could be cold, and there was always the chance of wind at Santi Giovanni e Paolo, so near to the open waters of the laguna.
At the bottom of the five flights of stairs, he pulled open the door to the building and found Puccetti, a recruit who had been with the police for fewer than five months.
'Buon giorno, Signor Commissario,' Puccetti said brightly and saluted, making far more noise and motion than Brunetti thought seemly at that hour.
Brunetti answered with a wave and headed down the narrow calle on which he lived. At the edge of the water, he saw the police launch moored to the landing, blue light flashing rhythmically. At the wheel, he recognized Bonsuan, a police pilot who had the blood of countless generations of Burano fishermen in his veins, blood that must certainly have been mixed with the waters of the laguna, carrying an instinctive knowledge of the tides and currents that would have allowed him to navigate the canals of the city with his eyes closed.
Bonsuan, stocky and heavy-bearded, acknowledged Brunetti's arrival with a nod, as much an acknowledgement of the hour as of his superior. Puccetti scrambled onto deck, joining a pair of uniformed policemen already there. One of them flicked the mooring cable free of the piling, and Bonsuan backed the boat quickly out into the Grand Canal, then swung it sharply around and back up towards the Rialto Bridge. They swept under the bridge and swung into a one-way canal on the right. Soon after that, they cut to the left, then again to the right. Brunetti stood on the deck, collar raised against the wind and the early-morning chill. Boats moored on either side of the canals bobbed in their wake, and others, coming in from San Erasmo with fresh fruit and vegetables, pulled to the side and hugged the buildings at the sight of their flashing blue light.
Finally, they turned into the Rio dei Mendicanti, the canal that flowed beside the hospital and out into the laguna, just opposite the cemetery. The proximity of the cemetery to the hospital was probably accidental; to most Venetians, however, particularly those who had survived treatment at the hospital, the location of the cemetery was a silent comment upon the proficiency of the hospital staff.
Halfway down the canal, clustered on the right, Brunetti saw a small group of people drawn up close to the edge of the embankment. Bonsuan stopped the boat fifty metres from the crowd in what Brunetti knew would be, by now, an entirely vain attempt to keep any evidence at the site free from the effects of their arrival.
One of the officers approached the boat and held out a hand to Brunetti to help him climb ashore. 'Buon giorno, Signor Commissario. We got him out, but, as you can see, we've already got company.' He gestured to nine or ten people crowding around something on the pavement, their bodies obscuring it from Brunetti's sight.
The officer turned back towards the crowd, saying as he walked, 'All right. Move back. Police.' At the approach of the two men, not at the command, the crowd pulled back.
On the pavement, Brunetti saw the body of a young man lying on his back, eyes open to the morning light. Beside him stood two policemen, uniforms soaked to their shoulders. Both of them saluted when they saw Brunetti. When their hands returned to their sides, water trickled to the ground beneath them. He recognized them, Luciani and Rossi, both good men.
'Well?' Brunetti asked, looking down at the dead man.
Luciani, the senior of the two, answered. 'He was floating in the canal when we got here, Dottore. A man in that house,' he said, pointing to an ochre building on the other side of the canal, 'called us. His wife saw him.'
Brunetti turned and looked across at the house. 'Fourth floor,' Luciani explained. Brunetti cast his eyes up, just in time to see a form pull back from the window. As he stared at the building and at those beside it, he noticed a number of dark shadows at the windows. Some retreated when he looked at them, others did not.
Brunetti turned back to Luciani and nodded to him to continue. 'He was near the steps, but we had to go in and pull him out. I put him on his back. To try to revive him. But there was no hope, sir. It looks like he's been dead a long time.' He sounded apologetic, almost as if his failure to breathe life back into the young man had somehow added to the finality of his death.
'Did you check the body?' Brunetti asked.
'No, sir. When we saw that there was nothing we could do, we thought it would be best to leave him for the doctor.'
'Good, good,' Brunetti muttered. Luciani shivered, either with cold or the awareness of his failure, and small drops of water fell to the pavement below him.
'You two get yourselves off home. Have a bath, get something to eat. And drink something against the chill.' Both men smiled at this, grateful for the suggestion. 'And take the launch. Bonsuan will take you home, both of you.'
The men thanked him and pushed their way through the crowd, which had grown larger in the few minutes Brunetti had been there. He gestured to one of the uniformed men who had come with him on the launch and told him, 'Move these people back, then get their names and addresses, all of them. Ask them when they got here, if they heard or saw anything strange this morning. Then send them home.' He hated the ghouls who always gathered at the scenes of death and could never understand the fascination so many of them had with it, especially in its more violent manifestations.
He looked again at the face of the young man on the pavement, now the object of so many pitiless stares. He was a handsome man, with short blond hair made darker by the water that still puddled around him. His eyes were a clear, limpid blue, his face symmetrical, nose narrow and fine.
Behind him, Brunetti heard the voices of the police as they began to move the crowd back. He called Puccetti over to him, ignoring the new salute the young man gave him. 'Puccetti, go over to that row of houses on the other side of the canal and see if anyone heard or saw anything.'
'For what time, sir?'
Brunetti thought for a moment, considering the moon. It had been new two nights ago: the tides would not have been strong enough to carry the body very far at all. He would have to ask Bonsuan about last night's tides. The hands of the dead man were strangely shrivelled and white, a sure sign he had been in the water for a long time. Once he knew how long the young man had been dead, he'd leave it to Bonsuan to calculate how far he could have drifted. And from where. In the meantime, there was Puccetti. 'Ask them for any time last night. And get some barriers set up. Send those people home if you can.' Little chance of that, he knew. Venice had few events like this to offer its citizens; they would leave only reluctantly.
He heard the sound of another boat approaching. A second white police launch, blue light pulsing round, pulled into the canal and stopped at the same mooring Bonsuan had used. This one also carried three men in uniform and one in civilian clothing. Like sunflowers, the faces of the crowd turned from the sun of their attention, the dead man, and swirled around towards the men who jumped down from the boat and approached the crowd.
At their head walked Doctor Ettore Rizzardi, the Coroner for the city. Unperturbed by the stares he was receiving, Doctor Rizzardi approached and extended his hand in a friendly fashion to Brunetti. 'Buon di, Guido. What is it?'
Brunetti stepped aside so that Rizzardi could see what lay at their feet. 'He was in the canal. Luciani and Rossi pulled him out, but there was nothing they could do. Luciani tried, but it was too late.'
Rizzardi nodded and grunted at this. The shrivelled skin of the hands told him how late it had been for any help.
'It looks like he's been in there for a long time, Ettore. But I'm sure you can tell me better.'
Taking this compliment as no more than his due, Rizzardi turned his full attention to the corpse.
Excerpted from Death in a Strange Country by Donna Leon Copyright © 1993 by Donna Leon . Excerpted by permission.
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