I thought I had read my way through Donna Leon’s books but here is one from 2002 that I missed. Willful Behavior involves the murder of an appealing young woman, Claudia Leonardo, one of Paola Brunetti’s students. As always, Commissario Guido Brunetti solves the murder by consulting his wide network of friends and family, and by bringing to bear his acute observational skills. Near the end of the book his wife Paola asks him if he hates his job. He confesses that he does not: that in a way he likes it because “I’m nosy by nature and I always want to know how the story will end or how or why it got started. I want to know why people do things.” You might say the same about readers of murder mysteries.
Leon’s mysteries provide reliable diversion, and this one is less bleak than the more recent iterations. True, Brunetti struggles with his role as part of a corrupt and ineffective government. At one point, he is grateful to avoid press investigation of the murder he’s working on — “More than one hundred Mafia bosses had been released from jail that week because the Ministry of Justice had not got around to bringing them to trial within the appointed time, so the press was baying at the Minister with sufficient savagery to distract them from one small murder in Venice…” These are critical words, certainly, but the last two Leon novels I read (about Roma immigrants and waste disposal) were savage by comparison.
In Willful Behavior the McGuffin is the apartment full of astounding art that belonged to Claudia Leonardo’s courtesy grandmother. When Signora Jacobs dies shortly after Claudia, the art and its wartime history seem sure to provide the motive for double murder. Brunetti eventually finds his murderer (I’m not giving away much by telling you this) but in Venice, this does not guarantee what we might think of as justice.