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
Brunetti sat at his desk and stared at his feet. Propped on the bottom drawer of his desk, they each presented him with four horizontal rows of tiny metal-circled round eyes that looked back at him in apparent, multiple reproach. For the last half hour, he'd divided his time and attention between the doors of the wooden armadio that stood against the far wall of his office and, when those ceased to hold his attention, his shoes. Occasionally, when the sharp corner of the top of the drawer began to cut into his heel, he crossed his feet the other way, but that merely rearranged the pattern of the eyes and did little to eliminate their reproach or relieve his boredom.
Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta had been on vacation in Thailand for the last two weeks – gone there on what the staff of the Questura insisted on calling his second honeymoon – and Brunetti had been left in charge of what crime there was in Venice. But crime, it seemed, had boarded the plane with the Vice-Questore, for little of any importance had happened since Patta and his wife (newly restored to his home and – one trembled – his arms) had left, save for the usual break-ins and pick-pocketing. The only interesting crime had taken place at a jewelry store in Campo San Maurizio two days before, when a well-dressed couple pushed in their baby carriage, and, new father blushing with pride, asked to see a diamond ring to give to the even shyer mother. She tried on first one, then another. Finally, selecting a three-carat white diamond, she asked if she could go out and look at it in the light of day. The inevitable followed: she stepped outside the door, flashed her hand in the sunlight, smiled, then waved to the father, who dipped his head into the carriage to rearrange the covers and, with an embarrassed smile to the owner, stepped outside to join his wife. And disappeared, of course, leaving the baby carriage and doll behind, blocking the door.
However ingenious, this certainly did not constitute a crime wave, and Brunetti found himself bored and at a loss, uncertain about whether he preferred the responsibility of command and the mounds of paper it seemed to generate or the freedom of action that his inferior status usually afforded him.
He looked up when someone knocked at his door, then smiled when it opened to present him this morning's first sight of Signorina Elettra, Patta's secretary, who seemed to have taken the Vice-Questore's departure as an invitation to begin her work day at ten, rather than the usual eight-thirty.
'Buon giorno, Commissario,' she said as she came in, her smile reminding him, fleetingly, of gelato all' amarena–scarlet and white – colours matched by the stripes of her silk blouse. She came into the office and stepped a bit to the side, allowing another woman to come in behind her. Brunetti glanced at the second woman and was briefly conscious of a square-cut suit in cheap grey polyester, its skirt in unfashionable proximity to low-heeled shoes. He noticed the woman's hands clasped awkwardly around a cheap imitation leather handbag, and turned his eyes back to Signorina Elettra.
'Commissario, here's someone who would like to speak to you,' she said.
'Yes?' he asked and looked at the other woman again, not much interested. But then he noticed the curve of her right cheek, and, as she turned her head and glanced around the room, the fine line of her jaw and neck. He repeated, this time with more interest, 'Yes?'
At his tone, the woman turned her head toward him and gave a halfsmile and, with it, became strangely familiar to Brunetti, though he was certain he had never seen her before. It occurred to him that she might be the daughter of a friend, come to seek his help, and he thought that what he recognized was not her face but its reflection of her family.
'Yes, Signorina?' he said, rising from his chair and waving a hand toward one that stood on the other side of his desk. When he spoke, the woman gave a quick glance at Signorina Elettra, who responded with the smile she reserved for those nervous of finding themselves in the Questura. She said something about having to get back to work, and let herself out of the office.
The woman moved around to the front of the chair and sat down, pulling her skirt to one side before she did so. Though she was slender, she moved gracelessly, as if unaccustomed to wearing anything other than low-heeled shoes.
Brunetti knew from long experience that it was best to say nothing, that he should wait, face calm and interested, and sooner or later his silence would spur the person in front of him into speech. As he waited, he glanced at her face, away, then back again, trying to remember why it was so familiar to him. He sought some sign of a parent in her face, or perhaps a sales-girl he knew from a shop, unrecognizable now she was not behind the familiar counter that would have identified her. If she did work in a shop, he found himself thinking, it would certainly not be one that had anything to do with clothing or fashion: the suit was a dreadful box-like thing in a style that had disappeared ten years ago; her haircut was simply hair that had been cut very short, and done too carelessly to be either boyish or stylish; her face was absolutely bare of make-up. But, as he took a third glance, he realized that she could be said to be in disguise, and what was hidden was her beauty. Her dark eyes were widely spaced, the lashes so long and thick that they needed no mascara. The lips were pale, but full and smooth. The nose, straight, narrow, and faintly arched, was – he could find no better word for it – noble. And beneath the awkwardly cropped hair, he saw that her brow was wide and unwrinkled. But even his consciousness of her beauty brought memory no closer.
She startled him by asking, 'You don't recognize me, do you, Commissario?' Even the voice was familiar but it, too, was out of place. He cast about in vain to recall it, but he could be certain only that it had nothing to do with the Questura or with his work.
'No, I'm sorry, Signorina. I don't. But I know that I know you and that this isn't where I'd expect to see you.' He smiled a real smile, one that asked her understanding of this common human predicament.
'I wouldn't expect most people you know to have reason to be in the Questura,' she said, but then she smiled to show that she meant it lightly and did understand his confusion.
'No, few of my friends ever come here voluntarily, and, so far, none of them has had to come involuntarily.' This time he smiled to show he could joke about police business, too, and added, 'Fortunately.'
'I've never had anything to do with the police before,' she said, looking around the room again, as if afraid that something bad would happen to her now that she did.
'Most people never do,' Brunetti offered.
'No, I suppose not,' she said, looking down at her hands. With no introduction, she said, 'I used to be immaculate.'
'I beg your pardon.' Brunetti was utterly at a loss, suddenly wondering if something was seriously wrong with this young woman.
'Suor'Immacolata,' she said, glancing up at him and smiling that soft smile which had for so long glowed at him from under the starched white wimple of her habit. The name put her into place and solved the puzzle: the haircut made sense, as did her evident awkwardness with the clothing she wore. Brunetti had been conscious of her beauty since the first time he saw her in that rest home where, for years, his mother had found no rest. But the nature of her religious vows and the long habit that reflected them had hedged her round as if with a taboo, and so Brunetti had registered her beauty as he would that of a flower or a painting, and he had responded to it as a viewer and not as a man. Now, freed of restrictions and disguise, her beauty had slipped into the room, however much her awkwardness and cheap clothing tried to hide it.
Suor'Immacolata had disappeared from his mother's nursing home about a year ago, and Brunetti, upset by his mother's desperation at the loss of the sister who had been most kind to her, could learn only that she had been transferred to another of the order's nursing homes. A long roll of questions ran through his mind, but he discarded them all as inappropriate. She was here: she would tell him why.
'I can't go back to Sicily,' she said abruptly. 'My family wouldn't understand.' Her hands abandoned their hold on her purse and sought comfort from one another. Finding none, they placed themselves on her thighs. Then, as if suddenly conscious of the warmth of the flesh under them, they returned to the hard angles of the bag.
'Have you been ...' Brunetti began and then, failing to find the correct verb, settled for a pause and the lame finale, '– long?'
'Are you staying here in Venice?'
'No, not here, out at the Lido. I have a room in a pensione.'
Had she come to him, he wondered, for money. If so, he would be honoured and glad to give it to her, so vast was the debt incurred by her years of charity to him and to his mother.
As if she'd read his mind, she said, 'I have a job.'
'In a private clinic on the Lido.'
'In the laundry.' She caught his swift glance at her hands and smiled. 'It's all machines now, Commissario. No more taking the sheets down to the river and beating them on the rocks.'
He laughed as much at his own embarrassment as at her answer. That lightened the mood in the room and freed him to say, 'I'm sorry that you had to make this decision.' In the past, he would have added her title, 'Suor'Immacolata', but there was no longer anything he could call her. With her habit had gone her name and he knew not what else.
'My name is Maria,' she said, 'Maria Testa.' Like a singer who paused to follow the lingering sound of a note that marked the change from one key to another, she stopped here and listened to the echo of her name. 'Though I'm not sure it's mine any longer,' she added.
'What?' Brunetti asked.
'There's a process you have to go through when you leave. The order, that is. I suppose it's like deconsecrating a church. It's very complicated, and it can take a long time before they let you go.'
'I suppose they want to be sure that you are. Sure, that is,' Brunetti suggested.
'Yes. It can take months, perhaps years. You've got to give them letters from people who know you and who think you're able to make the decision.'
'Is that what you'd like? Can I help you that way?'
She waved a hand to one side, flicking away his words and, with them, the vow of obedience. 'No, it doesn't matter. It's finished. Over.'
'I see,' Brunetti said, although he didn't.
She looked across at him, her gaze so direct and eyes so startling in their beauty that Brunetti felt a tinge of anticipatory envy for the man who would sweep away her vow of chastity.
'I came because of the casa di cura. Because of what I saw there.'
Brunetti's heart surged across the distance to his mother's side, and he was immediately alert for any hint of peril.
But before he could form his terror into a question, she said, 'No, Commissario, it's not your mother. Nothing will happen to her.' She paused then, embarrassed at how that sounded and at the grim truth contained in her words: the only thing that could ever again happen to Brunetti's mother was death. 'I'm sorry,' she added lamely but said nothing more.
Brunetti studied her for a moment, confused by what she had said, but at a loss as to how to ask her what she meant. He remembered the afternoon of his most recent visit to his mother, wishing that he could somehow see the longabsent Suor'Immacolata, knowing that she was the only person who would understand the painful fullness of his soul. But instead of the lovely Sicilian, he had found in the hall only Suor'Eleanora, a woman whom the course of years had turned sour and to whom the vows meant poverty of spirit, chastity of humour, and obedience only to some rigorous concept of duty. The fact that his mother could be, even if for an instant, in the care of this woman enraged him as a man; the fact that the casa di cura was considered to be one of the best available shamed him as a citizen.
Her voice pulled him back from his long reverie, but he didn't hear what she said and so had to ask, 'I'm sorry, Suora,' immediately conscious of how long usage had pulled her title from him. 'I wasn't paying attention.'
She began again, ignoring his use of her title. 'I'm talking about the casa di cura here in Venice where I was working three weeks ago. But it isn't only that I left, Dottore. I left the order, I left everything. To begin my ...' Here she paused and glanced out the open window, off to the façade of the church of San Lorenzo, seeking there the name of what she was about to begin. 'My new life.' She looked across at him and gave a small, weak smile. 'La Vita Nuova,' she repeated but in a tone she struggled to make lighter, as if conscious of the heavy melodrama that had slipped into her voice. 'We had to read La Vita Nuova in school, but I don't remember it very well.' She glanced across at him, eyebrows pulled together in interrogation.
Brunetti had no idea where this conversation was going; first there was talk of danger, and now of Dante. 'We read it, too, but I think I was too young. I always preferred La Divina Commedia, anyway,' he said. 'Especially Purgatorio.'
'How strange,' she said with interest, which might have been real or only an attempt to delay whatever it was she had come to tell him. 'I've never heard anyone prefer that book before. Why?'
Brunetti allowed himself a smile. 'I know, because I'm a policeman, people always assume I'd prefer Inferno. The wicked are punished and everyone gets what Dante thought they deserved. But I've never liked it, the absolute certainty of the judgements, all that awful suffering. Forever.' She sat quietly, looking at his face and attending to his words. 'I like Purgatorio because there's still the possibility that things will change. For the others, whether they're in Heaven or Hell, it's all finished: that's where they'll be. Forever.'
'Do you believe that?' she asked, and Brunetti knew she wasn't talking about literature.
'No part of it?'
'Do you mean if I believe that there's a Heaven or a Hell?'
She nodded, and he wondered if some lingering superstition kept her from uttering the words of doubt.
'No,' he answered.
After a very long pause, she said, 'How very grim.'
As he had many times since he realized that this was what he believed, Brunetti shrugged.
'I suppose we'll find out,' she said, but her voice was rich with possibility, not sarcasm or dismissal.
Brunetti's impulse was again to shrug, for this was a discussion he had abandoned years ago, while still in university, laying aside the things of a child, out of patience with speculation and eager for life. But a glance at her reminded him that she was, in a sense, just out of the egg, about to begin her own vita nuova, and so this sort of question, no doubt unthinkable in the past, must be current and vital to her. 'Perhaps it's true,' he conceded.
Her response was instant and fiery. 'You don't have to condescend to me, Commissario. I left my vocation behind me, not my wits.'
He chose neither to apologize nor to continue this accidental discussion of theology. He shifted a letter from one side of his desk to the other, pushed his chair back, and crossed his legs. 'Shall we talk about that, instead?' he asked.
'About the place where you left your vocation?'
'The nursing home?' she asked unnecessarily.
Brunetti nodded. 'Which one are you talking about?'
'San Leonardo. It's over near the Giustiniani Hospital. The order helps to staff it.'
He noticed that she was sitting with her feet placed one beside the other, both flat on the floor, knees pressed together. She opened the bag with some difficulty and took from it a sheet of paper, unfolded it, and looked down at whatever was written there. 'In the last year,' she began nervously, 'five people have died at San Leonardo.' She turned the paper around and leaned forward to place it in front of him. Brunetti glanced down at the list.
'These people?' he asked.
She nodded. 'I've given their names, their ages, and what they died of.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Quietly In Their Sleep"
Copyright © 1997 Donna Leon.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
One of the most exquisite and subtle detective series ever (The Washington Post)
Brunetti is the most humane sleuth since Georges SimenonÆs Inspector Maigret. (The Philadelphia Inquirer)
No one knows the labyrinthine world of Venice . . . like LeonÆs Brunetti. (Time)