Mystery lovers everywhere are addicted to Donna Leon’s ever-honorable Commissario Guido Brunetti and her portrayal of Venice’s beautiful but sinister byways and canals. In Willful Behavior, Brunetti is approached for a favor by one of his wife’s students. Intelligent and serious, Claudia Leonardo asks for his help in obtaining a pardon for a crime once committed by her now-dead grandfather. Brunetti thinks little of ituntil Claudia is found dead. Soon, another corpse and an extraordinary art collection lead Brunetti to long-buried secrets of Nazi collaboration and the exploitation of Italian Jewssecrets few in Italy want revealed.
About the Author
Donna Leon is the author of the highly acclaimed, internationally bestselling Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery series. The winner of the CWA Macallan Silver Dagger for Fiction, among other awards, she lived in Venice for many years and now divides her time between Venice and Switzerland.
Date of Birth:February 28, 1942
Place of Birth:Montclair, New Jersey
Education:B.A., 1964; M.A. 1969; postgraduate work in English literature
Read an Excerpt
The explosion came at breakfast. Brunetti's position as a commissario of police, though it made the possibility of explosion more likely than it would be for the average citizen, did not make the setting any less strange. The location, however, was related to Brunetti's personal situation as the husband of a woman of incandescent, if inconsistent, views and politics, not to his profession.
'Why do we bother to read this disgusting piece of garbage?' Paola exploded, slamming a folded copy of the day's Gazzettino angrily on to the breakfast table, where it upset the sugar bowl.
Brunetti leaned forward, pushed the edge of the paper aside with his forefinger and righted the bowl. He picked up a second brioche and took a bite, knowing that clarification would follow.
'Listen to this,' Paola said, picking up the paper and reading from the headline of the leading article on the front page: '"Fulvia Prato Recounts Her Terrible Ordeal."' Like all of Italy, Brunetti was familiar with Fulvia Prato, the wife of a wealthy Florentine industrialist, who had been kidnapped thirteen months before and kept in a cellar for that entire time by her kidnappers. Freed by the Carabinieri two weeks before, she had spoken to the press for the first time the previous day. He had no idea what Paola could find especially offensive in the headline.
'And this,' she said, turning the paper to the bottom of page five. '"EU Minister Confesses to Sexual Harassment in Her Former Workplace."' Brunetti was familiar with this case, as well: a female commissioner on the European Commission, he couldn't remember what her exact position was — one of those trivial ones they give to women — had yesterday said at a press conference that she had been the victim of sexual aggression twenty years ago when she worked in a firm of civil engineers.
A man who had learned patience in his more than twenty years of married life, Brunetti awaited Paola's explanation. 'Can you believe they'd use that word? Signora Prato did not have to confess to having been the victim of kidnapping, but this poor woman confessed to having been the victim of some sort of sexual attack. And how typical of these troglodytes,' she said with a vicious jab at the paper, 'not to explain what happened, only to say that it was sexual. God, I don't know why we bother to read it.'
'It is hard to believe, isn't it?' Brunetti agreed, himself genuinely shocked by the use of the word and more shocked that he had not registered its dissonance until Paola pointed it out to him.
Years ago, he had begun to make gentle fun of what he then dubbed her 'coffee sermons', the fulminations with which she greeted her reading of the morning papers, but over the years he had come to see that there was great sense in seeming madness.
'Have you ever had to deal with this sort of thing?' she asked him. She held the bottom half of the paper towards him, so he knew she was not referring to the kidnapping.
'Once, years ago.'
'In Naples. When I was assigned there.'
'A woman came in to report that she had been raped. She wanted to make an official denuncia.' He paused, letting memory return. 'It was her husband.'
Paola's pause was equally long; then she asked, 'And?'
'The questioning was done by the commissario I was assigned to at the time.'
'He told her to think about what she was doing, that it would cause her husband a great deal of trouble.'
This time Paola's silence was enough to spur him on.
'After she listened to him, she said she needed time to think about it, and she left.' He could still remember the set of the woman's shoulders as she left the office where the questioning had taken place. 'She never came back.'
Paola sighed, then asked, 'Have things changed much since then?'
'Are they any better?'
'Minimally. At least we try to have female officers do the first interview.'
'If there are any on duty when it happens, when they come in.'
'And if there aren't?'
'We call around and see if a woman can come on duty.'
'And if not?'
He wondered how breakfast had somehow become an inquisition. 'If not, then they are interviewed by whoever's available.'
'That means, I suppose, that men like Alvise or Lieutenant Scarpa could do the questioning.' She made no attempt to disguise her disgust.
'It's not really questioning, Paola, not like when we have a suspect.'
She pointed at the Gazzettino, her fingernail tapping out a quick triple beat on the second headline. 'In a city where this is possible, I hate to think of what any sort of questioning is like.'
He was just at the point of opposition when she, perhaps sensing this, changed her tone entirely and asked, 'How's your day look? Will you be home for lunch?'
Relieved, aware that he was tempting fate but helpless to stop himself, he answered, 'I think so. Crime seems to be on holiday in Venice.'
'God, I wish I could say the same about my students,' she said with tired resignation.
'Paola, you've only been back at work six days,' he couldn't prevent himself from saying. He wondered how she had managed to monopolize the right to complain about work. After all, he had to deal, if not on a daily basis, then at least with upsetting frequency, with murder, rape and battery, while the worst thing that could happen in her classroom was that someone would ask the identity of the Dark Lady or forget what happened at the end of Washington Square. He was about to say something to this effect when he caught the expression in her eyes.
'What's the matter?' he asked.
'Huh?' He knew evasion when he heard it, saw it.
'I asked you what was the matter.'
'Oh, difficult students. The usual stuff.'
Again, he recognized the signs that she was reluctant to discuss something. He pushed back his chair and got to his feet. He came to her side of the table, braced his hand on her shoulder, and bent to kiss the top of her head.
'I'll see you at lunch.'
'I'll live in that single hope,' she answered and leaned forward to sweep up the spilled sugar.
Left alone at the table, Paola was faced with the decision of whether to finish reading the paper or to wash the dishes: she chose the dishes. That task finished, she glanced at her watch and saw that her only class of the day began in less than an hour, and so she went back to the bedroom to finish dressing, her mind absorbed, as was often the case, with the writing of Henry James, though in this case it was only to the extent that he might have influenced Edith Wharton, whose novels were to be the subject of her lecture.
She had been lecturing, recently, on the theme of honour and honourable behavior and the way it was central to Wharton's three great novels, but she was preoccupied with whether the concept still had the same meaning for her students; indeed, whether it had any meaning for her students. She had wanted to talk about this with Guido that morning, for she respected his opinions on the subject, but the headline had diverted her.
After decades, she could no longer feign not to notice his usual response to her coffee sermons: that quickened desire to leave the table. She smiled to herself at the term he'd invented and at the affection with which he generally used it. She knew she responded too quickly and too strongly to many stimuli; indeed, in a moment of high anger, her husband had once drummed out a damning list of just which subjects would push her until she was past reason hunted. She refused to dwell upon his catalogue, its accuracy still enough to cause her a tremor of nervousness.
The first autumn chill had fallen on the city the day before so Paola took a light woollen jacket from the closet, picked up her briefcase and left the apartment. Though she walked through the city of Venice to reach her classroom, it was New York that was on her mind, the city where the drama of the lives of the women in Wharton's novels had played out a century ago. Attempting to navigate the shoals of social custom, old and new money, the established power of men, and the sometimes greater power of their own beauty and charm, her three protagonists found themselves perpetually buffeted against the hidden rocks of honour. But passage of time, Paola reflected, had vaporized from the common mind any universal agreement on what constituted honourable behavior.
Certainly the books did not suggest that honour triumphed: in one case it cost the heroine her life; another lost her happiness because of it; the third triumphed only because of a constitutional inability to perceive it. How, then, to argue for its importance, especially to a class of young people who would identify — if indeed students were any longer capable of identification with characters who were not in film — only with the third?
The class went as she had expected, and she found herself, at the end of it, tempted to quote to them from the Bible, a book for which she had no special fondness, the bit about those who have eyes and fail to see, ears and fail to hear, but she refrained, realizing that her students would be as insensitive to the evangelist as they had proven themselves to be to Wharton.
The young people filed from the room, and Paola busied herself replacing papers and books in her briefcase. The failure of her profession no longer troubled her to the extent it had years ago, when she had first realized how incomprehensible much of what she said, and probably of what she believed, was to her students. During her seventh year of teaching, she'd made a reference to the Iliad and, in the face of general blankness, had discovered that only one of the students in the class had any memory of having read it, and even he was utterly incapable of understanding the concept of heroic behavior. The Trojans had lost, hadn't they, so who cared how Hector had behaved?
'The times are out of joint,' she whispered to herself in English and then started in surprise, realizing that someone was standing next to her, one of the students, a young girl, now probably convinced that her professor was mad.
'Yes, Claudia?' she asked, fairly certain that was the girl's name. Short, dark of hair and eye, the girl had a creamy white complexion that looked as though she had never been out in the sun. She'd taken a class with Paola the year before, seldom spoken, made frequent notes, and done very well in her exams, leaving Paola with a vague overall impression of a bright young woman handicapped by shyness.
'I wonder if I could speak to you, Professoressa,' the girl said.
Remembering that she could be acerbic only with her own children, Paola did not ask her if that was not what they were doing. Instead, she clipped shut her briefcase and said, turning to face the girl, 'Certainly. What about? Wharton?' 'Well, sort of, Professoressa, but not really.'
Again, Paola refrained from pointing out that only one of these answers could be true. 'What about, then?' she asked, but she smiled when she asked the question, unwilling to make this usually silent girl reluctant to go on. To avoid any suggestion that she might be eager to leave, Paola removed her hand from her briefcase, leaned back against the desk, and smiled again.
'It's about my grandmother,' the girl said, glancing at Paola inquisitively, as if to ask if she knew what a grandmother was. She looked towards the door, back at Paola, then back to the door. 'I'd like to get an answer about something that's bothering her.' Having said that, she stopped.
When it seemed that Claudia was not going to continue, Paola picked up her briefcase and made slowly towards the door. The girl eeled around her and opened it, stepping back to allow Paola to pass through first. Pleased by this sign of respect and displeased with herself for being so, Paola asked, not that she could see it mattered much but thinking that the answer might provide the girl with a reason to give further information, 'It is your mother's or your father's mother?'
'Well, really neither, Professoressa.'
Promising herself a mighty reward for all the unpronounced replies this conversation, if that's what it was, had so far cost her, Paola said, 'Sort of an honorary grandmother?'
Claudia smiled, a response which seemed to manifest itself primarily in her eyes and was all the sweeter for that. 'That's right. She's not my real grandmother, but I've always called her that. Nonna Hedi. Because she's Austrian, you see.'
Paola didn't, but she asked, 'Is she related to your parents, a great-aunt or something?'
This question obviously made the girl uncomfortable. 'No, she's not, not in any way.' She paused, considered, then blurted out, 'She was a friend of my grandfather's, you see.'
'Ah,' Paola replied. This was all growing far more complicated than the girl's simple request had seemed to suggest, and so Paola asked, 'And what is it that you wanted to ask about her?'
'Well, it's really about your husband, Professoressa.'
Paola was so surprised that she could only echo the girl's remark, 'My husband?' 'Yes. He's a policeman, isn't he?'
'Yes, he is.'
'Well, I wonder if you'd ask him something for me, well, something for my grandmother, that is.'
'Certainly. What would you like me to ask him?'
'Well, if he knows anything about pardons.'
'Yes. Pardons, for crimes.'
'Do you mean an amnesty?'
'No, that's what the government does when the jails are full and it's too expensive to keep people there: they just let them all out and say it's because of some special event or something. But that's not what I'm talking about. I mean an official pardon, a formal declaration on the part of the state that a person wasn't guilty of a crime.'
As they talked, they had progressed very slowly down the stairs from the fourth floor, but now Paola stopped. 'I'm not sure I understand much of this, Claudia.'
'That doesn't matter, Professoressa. I went to a lawyer and asked him, but he wanted five million lire to give me an answer, and then I remembered that your husband was a policeman, so I thought that maybe he could tell me.'
Paola let a quick nod serve for understanding. 'Could you tell me exactly what it is you want me to ask him, Claudia?'
'If there is any legal process by which a person who has died can be given a pardon for something they were put on trial for.'
'Only put on trial for?'
The edges of Paola's patience showed through as she asked, 'Not convicted and sent to prison for?'
'Not really. That is, convicted but not sent to prison.'
Paola smiled and placed a hand on the girl's arm. 'I'm not sure I understand this. Convicted but not sent to prison? How can that happen?'
The girl glanced over the railing and at the open door to the building, almost as if Paola's question had spurred her to consider flight. She looked back at Paola and answered, 'Because the court said he was mad.'
Paola, careful not to inquire about who the person might be, considered this before she asked, 'And where was he sent?'
'To San Servolo. He died there.'
Like everyone else in Venice, Paola knew that the island of San Servolo had once been the site of the madhouse, had served that purpose until the Basaglia Law closed the madhouses and either freed the patients or removed them to less horrendous locations.
Sensing that the girl would not tell her, Paola asked anyway. 'Do you want to tell me what the crime was?'
'No, I don't think so,' the girl said and started down the steps. At the bottom she turned and called back to Paola, 'Will you ask him?'
'Of course,' Paola answered, knowing that she would, as much now for her own curiosity as for any desire to do a favour for this girl.
'Then thank you, Professoressa. I'll see you in class next week, then.' With that Claudia walked to the door, where she paused and looked up at Paola. 'I really liked the books, Professoressa,' she called up the stairway. 'It broke my heart when Lily died like that. But it was an honourable death, wasn't it?'
Paola nodded, glad that at least one of them seemed to have understood.CHAPTER 2
Brunetti, for his part, gave little thought to honour that morning, busy as he was with the task of keeping track of minor crime in Venice. It seemed at times as though that was all they did: fill out forms, send them off to be filed, make up lists, juggle the numbers and thus keep the crime statistics reassuringly low. He grumbled about this, but when he considered that accurate figures would require even more paperwork, he reached for the documents.
A little before twelve, just as he was beginning to think longingly of lunch, he heard a knock on his door. He called out, 'Avanti,' and looked up to see Alvise.
'There's someone to see you, sir,' the officer said with a smile.
'Who is it?'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Willful Behavior"
Copyright © 2002 Donna Leon and Diogenes Verlag AG Zurich.
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