A Noble Radiance is the seventh book in Donna Leon’s mystery series set in contemporary Venice, featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. It opens when a farmer plowing his field in the Dolomites, the mountains north of Venice, discovers a decomposed body. Buried with the body is the signet ring of the noble Lorenzoni family, and it turns out the body is that of Roberto, a young man who was the heir to the Lorenzonis. He was kidnapped two years before, and his father received ransom notes, but he could not pay because the family’s assets were frozen. Brunetti’s boss, who likes to flatter the nobility, assigns Brunetti to the case because he has connections to the nobility through his father-in-law, a count. But Brunetti’s relations with his father-in-law have always been difficult, and now Brunetti’s father-in-law tells him that Paola, Brunetti’s wife, is unhappy in their marriage because Brunetti spends so much time on his police work. Brunetti is very upset, because he never noticed Paola was unhappy, but he worries it might be true. But the count agrees to tell Brunetti what he knows about the Lorenzoni family.
What Brunetti learns is a sordid history going back to World War II, when a member of the family denounced people to the Nazis. Lately, the family has been involved in shady business dealings in eastern Europe. The dead man, Roberto, was often sent to the former Soviet republics on business. (The book was written in 1998, so, not all that long after the fall of the Soviet Union.) Could these dealings have led to his murder? Also, Roberto’s cousin Maurizio, who is now the heir to the Lorenzoni business, is much more intelligent and capable than Roberto was. Could he have murdered his cousin in order to become the heir? The case becomes even more baffling when Brunetti goes to the villa where the kidnapping took place and finds out that, on the night of the kidnapping, the gates had been blocked from the inside by a huge boulder, which means only someone with access to the villa could have kidnapped and killed Roberto. The cousin, Maurizio, would have been the prime suspect, except that Brunetti thinks that the two young cousins got along and Maurizio is not capable of murder. The police secretary, Signorina Elettra, who is one of the most delightful characters in the series, uses her computer expertise and her many connections in Venice and throughout Italy to help Brunetti solve the case.
As usual, one of the strengths of Leon’s series is Brunetti’s relationship with his wife Paola and his teenage children Raffi and Chiara. There is a hilarious scene where Chiara tries to cook dinner for the family for the first time. She burns the mushrooms and cuts the ravioli into strange shapes, but the family pretends it’s great. Then Paola, who is a gourmet cook, tells Brunetti that her cooking used to be just as bad as Chiara’s, but she learned to cook when she married him because she knew he loved food. And Brunetti cooks for himself when he is away from his family on a case. Leon’s descriptions of food are mouthwatering, and it’s not only Paola’s cooking. The meal Brunetti and his father-in-law eat in a restaurant, which includes, among other things, spaghetti with clams, is described in exquisite detail.
A Noble Radiance is an excellent addition to the series. Its conclusion is more tragic than some of the others in the series. Brunetti is devoted to justice, but justice is not always done, since the rich and powerful often use their connections in order to escape. But I will not give away exactly who the murderer is. It came as a big surprise to me, even though I probably should have seen it sooner. As usual, Leon is wonderful at describing the corruption at the heart of all levels of Venetian society, but also the contrast between this and the love Brunetti and his family have for each other, and Brunetti’s honesty in a world where he does not get rewarded for it. The police, as portrayed by Leon, is as corrupt as any other part of society, and Brunetti is not likely to rise above his current rank.
Unlike some of Leon’s other books, A Noble Radiance has the same title in both the British and US editions. For a while it was hard to find in the US because it was published at a time when Leon had lost her US publisher and her books were only available in British editions. But, I am glad to say, this is no longer the case.
A Noble Radiance is available from the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.