Donna Leon writes lushly about a Venice in regal decay, with the urbane and likable Commissario Guido Brunetti as her main character, yet it was not until 158 pages in (halfway through the novel) that the crime the good detective was supposed to investigate even occurred. This, I think, encapsulates everything I found frustrating about Through a Glass, Darkly.
Familial strife and the power play inside a community of Murano glass-blowers become the springboard for Leon’s novel, which shines a light on industrial pollution and the danger it poses to Venetian waters. Brunetti helps out environmental activist Marco Ribetti as a favor to a friend, but he is eventually drawn into Ribetti’s conflict with his own father-in-law, Giovanni De Cal. He is a tyrannical glass factory owner and as Brunetti asks around about him, he eventually learns of De Cal’s shoddy environmental track record and the resentment nursed by some of his own workers. A body eventually crops up in his factory and Brunetti tracks down the different clues left behind by the victim to uncover the killer’s identity.
Notice how I used the word ‘eventually’ thrice in that paragraph. The plot moves at such a glacial pace despite having admittedly enjoyable descriptions of the exotic locale and its people. Brunetti’s investigations in the entire first half is borne from the expectation of a crime, meandering up and down Venice’s streets and canals, and the reader is left waiting for the next shoe to drop. When the real murder investigation comes to the fore, the sleuthing is confined to finding clues in Dante’s Inferno and lagoon cartography. And then the identity of the killer is revealed to Brunetti because of a throwaway line by a boatman.
I waffled between giving this book 3 or 2 stars on Goodreads because it really wasn’t an awful book. But as a mystery, it completely reneges on its promises. It’s as if the writer simply wanted to write a travelogue with Brunetti as the main character, telegraphing his thoughts on the dangers of nuclear waste and its effect on a historical city such as Venice. The crime here is an afterthought. I can’t help but compare it to the two books I’ve read by Andrea Camillieri (reviewed Shape of the Water, The Terra-Cotta Dog forthcoming). It managed to seamlessly tie in the sense of place and police work, suffusing the story with fleetness and humor.
About starting a mystery series in the middle: I’ve moved on from problematizing it like I did with my review for Anne Perry’s Half Moon Street to accepting that there are inherent drawbacks in doing it yet believing that a title’s merits should not rely on the reader’s affection for the previous books.