The Girl of His Dreams

By Donna Leon

Atlantic Monthly Press. 228 pp. $24


Reviewed by David Hiltbrand


Like the glass blowers of Murano, Donna Leon has fashioned a cottage industry for herself in Venice.

Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries depend more on the exotic and watery atmosphere of the storied city than they do on plot or suspense. That has never been more true than in her 17th Brunetti outing,

The Girl of His Dreams

.

The book begins with the funeral of Brunetti's mother. The priest who said the final blessing over her coffin comes to see the commissario, asking him to investigate Brother Leonardo, an unconventional religious figure, the Italian equivalent of a Christian fundamentalist, who is building a modest following in Venice.

Although Leonardo has done nothing even vaguely illegal, and despite his own misgivings about the priest's motives, Brunetti agrees to take the case.

He recruits his subordinate Inspector Vianello and both their wives to attend one of the renegade brother's lectures, which turns out to be a simple message of charity and kindness.

Afterward Brunetti's wife, Paola, offers up a bafflingly bitter analysis of the homily: "Her voice deepened into disgust and she added, 'It's all so terribly American.'

" 'Why American?' Nadia asked, reaching for one of the fresh glasses the barman set on the counter.

"Because they think it's enough to feel things: they've come to believe it's more important than doing things, or it's the same thing or, at any rate deserves just as much credit as actually doing something. What is it that poseur of a president of theirs was always saying, 'I feel your pain?' as if that made any difference to anything. God, it's enough to choke a pig.' Paola picked up her glass and took a hefty slug."

It's possible given the virulence of that sentiment that the New Jersey-born Leon has spent too much time living by canals.

No sooner does she laboriously establish this plot than Leon abandons it to pursue another: The body of an 11-year-old Gypsy girl, a refugee from Kosovo, is found floating in the Canal Grande near Palazzo Benzon.

The pleasure of reading Leon is in the local details - the food, the landmarks, the continental lifestyle. A meeting, for instance, is set for 7:30 at night. "That way people can be home for dinner," explains a character.

But Brunetti's company isn't all that rewarding. In fact, it's more than a little precious. How many cops do you know who are brushing up on Aeschylus and other ancient Greek dramatists in their spare time?

Might as well read the classics. Brunetti spends hardly any time on police work. Mostly he asks friends and relatives to nose around for him.

That may be the Italian way. In this country, we expect our detectives to do more than dine. We require a little sleuthing from them.

Brunetti doesn't seem very committed to solving these cases and neither does the author. In the end, even Paola, a literary professor, is upset with the lack of resolution.

"He saw how unsatisfied this possibility left her but said only, 'I think I'd like to go to bed.'

" 'And leave it like that?' she asked, shocked.

" 'It's not one of your novels, where everything gets explained in the last chapter, with people sitting around in the library.' "

In point of fact, that's precisely what it is, and that's why the book is disappointing.

The charm of Venice can overcome a multitude of sins, but it can't make up for a weak story.

Inquirer staff writer David Hiltbrand is the author of several mysteries, including "Dying to Be Famous," "Deader Than Disco" and "Killer Solo."