Sometimes, in the case of a long running series, it can be intimidating to make a beginning. The Venetian mysteries of Donna Leon, featuring Detective Guido Brunetti, have been recommended to me for years and years, by more people than I care to say. But I could never get into what I think is the first one, A Death at La Fenice, so didn't start them. I was like a horse that balked time and again at the same jump.(Sorry--I was watching National Velvet with my four-year-old friend the other night, and I expect this is going to creep into my metaphors.)
A week or so ago, I happened to open a mystery that had been sitting on my desk at work for longer than I care to say. (If I tell you that I would have no problem admitting that it had been sitting there for a year, you may begin to have some sense of the layers of time we're talking about here.) It was the abovementioned Friends in High Places, and it begins with Detective Brunetti in his study, reading Xenophon as he lounges on the couch while he waits for his wife to come home with soft-shelled crabs for lunch. Apparently this image was all it took to woo me, even though I'm not a man, have never read Xenophon, and if I wait for a wife to come home with lunch fixings, I wait in vain. It doesn't matter--I share a similar enough vision of Edenic bliss for this to work for me.
Of course, being a mystery, this bliss is abruptly shattered by the arrival of a young man from the Ufficio Ustato, a bureaucrat named Rossi who has arrived to inform Brunetti of a slight problem, namely that, ahem, his apartment does not exist.
And that's all I'm going to tell you about the plot. Here's what I think is masterful about the book, though. Within a few pages, and despite Brunetti's astonishment and irritation, we get a feel for the quiet, earnest and yet essentially decent Rossi, which lends a kind of dignity or gravity to all that happens after. The title, too, has many 'levels', which is an unintentional pun on my part. Leon's pun, on the other hand, is relevant to the themes of the book as a whole. She gives, as I expect is her trademark, a penetrating dissection of Venetian society, not wholly favorable by any means. It perhaps is slightly askew from our normal tourist's perception of the city, yet not far off from Rebecca West's analysis of it in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, in which, many years ago, she described it as a city of traders and diplomats and dealmakers--beautiful but flawed by corruption.
I am already on to another, A Noble Radiance, and of course, as is the way with all good mystery series, I want to read them all. I'm sure that, given the time, I'll even read the one I couldn't manage to begin.