Review | Transient Desires, by Donna Leon

TransientDesiresCoverDonna Leon’s Guido Brunetti mysteries have long been a go-to comfort series for me. I love the gentlemanly, sophisticated Guido, his loving wife Paola and her delicious home-cooked meals, his sharp mentee Signorina Elettra, and of course, his beautifully rich and vibrant world of Venice. Transient Desires struck me as a rather bleak addition to the series, though I admit I don’t know if that impression is due to the novel itself or to the overall bleakness of pandemic times.

In some ways, Transient Desires has many of the hallmarks of classic Brunetti mysteries. There’s the beginning of a relatively minor mystery (two young women, American tourists, are left with severe injuries at the entrance to an island hospital), which expands into a much broader treatise on social ills. One of the suspects, a young man seen with the tourists earlier than evening, is the son of a wealthy, powerful man, which means Brunetti needs to navigate the politics of social classes. The case also leads him to uncover a sex trafficking operation, and to work with a young man afraid of violence if his family learn of his sexuality. All of these are deeper social issues that entangle Brunetti and his colleagues, and, like other Brunetti mysteries, takes this story far beyond the question of the two initial victims.

There is also the usual wonderful deep dive into Venice and its various subcultures. There’s a thought-provoking scene where one of Brunetti’s colleagues, a senior detective, deliberately slips into her childhood accent to disarm a suspect, and make the suspect underestimate her intelligence. Brunetti himself, socially aware as he is, falls into the same trap, and, upon realizing his colleague’s roots, notes his own surprise at how ‘far’ she’s come. The detective notices Brunetti’s response, and calls him out on his deeply rooted prejudices, and this leads to a gratifying teachable moment for the commissario, as well as a fascinating glimpse into Venetian culture.

I think for me, the sense of bleakness comes mostly in the scenes featuring Brunetti’s family. I usually look forward to those scenes as little respites of joy, lightness, and love in the midst of all the mess the commissario has to deal with on a daily basis. But time passes in the Brunetti-verse, and the characters age as well. There’s still the old touches of lightness, as when Brunetti despairs of having to eat a takeout sandwich for lunch instead of Paola’s home cooking, and there’s still plenty of love and respect around the Brunetti family table. But daughter Chiara is a bit of a self-righteous teen now, who guilts her family for eating meat, and in one rather spoiled-brat moment, complains that her school is treating its students like slaves by not allowing them their phones in the classroom. The thoughtless comment leads to a teachable moment from Brunetti, who has his sex trafficking case in mind, and Chiara responds with rueful, self-aware wit that keeps things light and acknowledges her self-awareness without quite admitting her fault. Still, the remark in the first place seemed rather out of place — even taking into account teenagers’ exaggerations, it seems unlikely that a teen as socially aware as Chiara would refer to slavery so thoughtlessly, and so the scene seemed set up mostly for a link to Brunetti’s case, and cast a rather somber tone on an otherwise joyful family time.

More organic and yet also more somber is a scene when Paola asks Guido how he can stand to do his job with all the emotions it entails. He admits that it’s all he’s qualified for, which can be taken as a lighthearted deflection, but I can’t help reading some weariness into the reply. The conversation proceeds to a comment from Guido about his eventual retirement dream of a quiet life in the country, and Paola’s surprise at the admission. The conversation is brief, and relatively light, but there’s a sense of melancholy to it as well, and I can’t help wondering the mental and emotional toll all the years of Guido’s career has taken on him. This Guido is older than I remember, and more weighed down by his years of difficult work.

The mystery itself ends rather abruptly, with a bit of an action-packed final scene. The final paragraphs refer to other parties taking over the situation, and giving Guido a break, but the final line implies the events of the scene will cast a long shadow for Guido, and add to the weight already heavy on his shoulders.

Transient Desires is a beautiful, atmospheric read. It’s a bit slow at times, but as Leon’s readers have come to expect, it’s full of heart, and vibrant with the world of Venice. It’s also, to me at least, a somber reminder of the toll a job like Guido’s can take on someone, especially after so many years (30 books and counting!) of trying to navigate a complex, and increasingly messy, world.

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Thank you to Publisher’s Group Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

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