Dressed for Death is the third novel in Donna Leon’s long-running mystery series set in Venice, featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. On a hot August day, the body of a transvestite prostitute is found behind a slaughterhouse in a district outside of Venice, and Brunetti is assigned the case because all the police officers in the area have gone on vacation. Brunetti accepts the case, even though he longs to join his wife Paola and teenage children Raffi and Chiara on their vacation in the mountains. The victim’s face is damaged beyond recognition, so Brunetti asks the prostitutes in the area who it could be. Soon he learns that the victim was not a prostitute, but one of Venice’s most prominent bankers. As he investigates, Brunetti uncovers a scam involving illegally rented apartments and a charitable organization that was supposedly helping widows and orphans. The dead man and his successor at the bank, as well as one of Venice’s most powerful lawyers, were involved. But who was the actual murderer? When Brunetti goes to meet with one of the transvestites, who has information to give him, someone tries to kill Brunetti, and a young police officer who was with him is killed. Then Brunetti’s contact is found murdered. Brunetti realizes he must find the murderer soon, or he will be the next victim.
As always, Leon paints a vivid picture of life in Venice and makes the reader want to go there, in spite of all the crime that goes on. Brunetti is a wonderful character, a decent man among all the corrupt officials, including his own boss, even though this particular book makes you feel sympathy even for Brunetti’s boss, Patta, because his wife has run off with a famous film director and he’s trying to get her to come back to him. A delightful new character is introduced in this book: Signorina Elettra, the secretary to the police, who is a computer expert. Since Brunetti’s wife Paola and the children are on vacation for much of the book, you don’t see as much of the interaction between Brunetti and Paola as you usually do, or as many of the mouth-watering meals that Paola cooks. But in an early scene, she makes one of my favorite dishes, spaghetti with tuna and tomato sauce. There is also a great scene in which Brunetti cooks pasta for himself and then sits down to read Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome, making the comparison between the corruption in ancient Rome and in his own time. Not to give away too much about the ending, but in this novel justice is served in a satisfying way. This is not always the case with Leon’s books. Sometimes the murderer will get off because of influential political connections.
Since this book was written in the 1990s, readers should be aware that it contains some dated attitudes toward gay men and transgender people. But Brunetti and Paola do not share those attitudes. Also, several of Leon’s books have different titles in the British and American editions. This novel is called The Anonymous Venetian in the British edition.
Dressed for Death is available from the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.