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Suffer the Little Children : A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery
Donna Leon's charming, evocative, and addictive Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries are widely acclaimed national and international best sellers, reaching a wider audience in the United States than ever before. Her latest, Suffer the Little Children, is classic Brunetti, a fantastic addition to the series. When Commissario Brunetti is summoned in the middle of the night to the hospital bed of a senior pediatrician, he is confronted with more questions than answers. Three men-a young Carabiniere captain and two privates from out of town-had burst into the doctor's apartment while the family was sleeping, attacked him, and taken away his eighteen-month-old boy. What could have motivated an assault by the forces of the state so violent that it has left the doctor mute? Who would have authorized such an alarming operation? As Brunetti delves into the case, he begins to uncover a story of infertility, desperation, and illegal dealings. At the same time, Brunetti's colleague, Inspector Vianello, discovers a moneymaking scam between pharmacists and doctors in the city. But it appears as if one of the pharmacists is after more than money. What secrets are in the records? And what has been done with them? Donna Leon's new novel is as subtle and fascinating as her best mysteries, set in a beautifully realized Venice, a glorious city seething with small-town vice.
In Leon's 16th Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery, at once astringent yet lyrical, two rival police forces--Brunetti and his Venetian colleagues and the carabinieri--are both interested in a doctor who illegally adopts an Albanian infant. When three carabinieri break into the doctor's apartment and seize the child at night, they injure the doctor, leaving him mute. Much of the early action takes place in a hospital, and because Venetian hospitals appear only slightly less bureaucratic and Kafkaesque than their stateside counterparts, Leon's marvelous insights into Italian life, so sharp when she explores a military academy in Uniform Justice or glassblowers in Through a Glass, Darkly, aren't as fresh, sinister or compelling here. But once the IVs and bandages give way to vandalism at a pharmacy and the family secrets of a neo-Fascist plumbing tycoon, Leon regains her stride and the novel's last fifth is first-rate and masterful. Leon seldom delivers a "feel good" ending, choosing instead conclusions that are wise and inevitable while still being unsettling. (May)
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Atlantic Monthly Press
September 19, 2007
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Excerpt from Suffer the Little Children by Donna Leon
'. . . and then my daughter-in-law told me that I should come in and tell you about it. I didn't want to, and my husband told me I was an idiot to get involved with you because it would only lead to trouble, and he's got enough trouble at the moment. He said it would be like the time when his uncle's neighbour tapped into the ENEL line and started to steal his electricity, and he called to report it, and when they came, they told him he had to . . .'
'Excuse me, Signora, but could we go back to what happened last month?'
'Of course, of course, but it's just that it ended up costing him three hundred thousand lire.' 'Signora.'
'My daughter-in-law said if I didn't do it, she'd call you herself, and since I'm the one who saw it, it's probably better that I come and tell you, isn't it?'
'So when the radio said it was going to rain this morning, I put my umbrella and boots by the door, just in case, but then it didn't, did it?'
'No, it didn't, Signora. But you said you wanted to tell me about something unusual that happened in the apartment opposite you?'
'Yes, that girl.'
'Which girl, Signora?'
'The young one, the pregnant one.'
'How young do you think she was, Signora?'
'Oh, maybe seventeen, maybe older, but maybe younger. I have two boys, you know, so I could tell if she was a boy, but she was a girl.'
'And you said she was pregnant, Signora?'
'Yes. And right at the end of it. In fact, that's why I told my daughter-in-law, and that's when she told me I had to come and tell you about it.'
'That she was pregnant?'
'That she had the baby.'
'Where did she have the baby, Signora?'
'Right there, in the calle across from my place. Not out in the calle, you understand. In the apartment across the calle. It's a little way down from my place, opposite the house next door, really, but because the house sticks out a little bit, I can see into the windows, and that's where I saw her.'
'Where is this exactly, Signora?'
'Calle dei Stagneri. You know it. It's near San Bortolo, the calle that goes down to Campo de la Fava. I live down on the right side, and she was on the left, on the same side as that pizzeria, only we're both down at the end, near the bridge. The apartment used to belong to an old woman - I never knew her name - but then she died and her son inherited it, and he started to rent it out, you know, the way people do, by the week, to foreigners, or by the month.
'But when I saw the girl in there, and she was pregnant, I thought maybe he'd decided to rent it like a real apartment, you know, with a lease and all. And if she was pregnant, she'd be one of us and not a tourist, right? But I guess there's more money if you rent by the week, especially to foreigners. And then you don't have to pay the . . .
'Oh, I'm sorry. I suppose that isn't important, is it? As I was saying, she was pregnant, so I thought maybe they were a young couple, but then I realized I never saw a husband in there with her.'
'How long was she there, Signora?'
'Oh, no more than a week, maybe even less. But long enough for me to get to know her habits, sort of.' 'And could you tell me what they were?' 'Her habits?'
'Well, I never saw too much of her. Only when she walked past the window and went into the kitchen. Not that she ever cooked anything, at least not that I saw. But I don't know anything about the rest of the apartment, so I don't know what she did, really, while she was there. I suppose she was just waiting.'
'For the baby to be born. They come when they want.'
'I see. Did she ever notice you, Signora?'
'No. I've got curtains, you see, and that place doesn't. And the calle's so dark that you can't really see into the windows on the other side, but about two years ago, whenever it was, they put one of those new street lamps just across from her place, so it's always light there at night. I don't know how people stand them. We sleep with our shutters closed, but if you didn't have them, I don't know how you'd get a decent night's sleep, do you?'
'Not at all, Signora. You said you never saw her husband, but did you ever see any other people in there with her?'
'Sometimes. But always at night. Well, in the evening, after dinner, not that I ever saw her cook anything. But she must have, mustn't she, or someone must have taken her food? You have to eat when you're pregnant. Why, I ate like a wolf when I was expecting my boys. So I'm sure she must have eaten, only I never saw her cook anything. But you can't just leave a pregnant woman in a place and not feed her, can you?'
'Certainly not, Signora. And who was it you saw in the apartment with her?'
'Sometimes men would come in and sit around the table in the kitchen and talk. They smoked, so they'd open the window.' 'How many men, Signora?'
'Three. They sat in the kitchen, at the table, with the light on, and they talked.'
'In Italian, Signora?'
'Let me think. Yes, they spoke Italian, but they weren't us. I mean they weren't Venetian. I didn't know the dialect, but it wasn't Veneziano.'
'And they just sat at the table and talked?' 'Yes.'
'And the girl?'
'I never saw her, not while they were there. After they left, sometimes she would come out into the kitchen and maybe get a glass of water. At least, I'd see her at the window.'
'But you didn't speak to her?'
'No, as I told you, I never had anything to do with her, or with those men. I just watched her and wished she'd eat something. I was so hungry when I was pregnant with Luca and Pietro. I ate all the time. But I was lucky that I never gained too much . . .'
'Did the men eat, Signora?'
'Eat? Why, no, I don't think they ever did. That's strange, isn't it, now that you mention it? They didn't drink anything, either. They just sat there and talked, like they were waiting for a vaporetto or something. After they left, sometimes she'd go into the kitchen, but she never turned the light on. That was the funny thing: she never turned the lights on at night, not anywhere in the apartment, at least anywhere I could see. I could see the men sitting there, but I saw her only during the day or, sometimes, when she walked past a window at night.'
'And then what happened?'
'Then one night I heard her calling out, but I didn't know what she was saying. One of the words might have been "mamma," but I'm not really sure. And then I heard a baby. You know the noise they make when they're born? Nothing like it in the world. I remember when Luca was born . . .'
'Was anyone else there?'
'When she had the baby.'
'I didn't see anyone, if that's what you mean, but there must have been someone. You can't just leave a girl to have a baby on her own, can you?'
'At the time, Signora, did you wonder why she was living in the apartment alone?'
'Oh, I don't know. Maybe I thought her husband was away or that she didn't have one, and then the baby came too fast for her to get to the hospital.'
'It's only a few minutes to the hospital from there, Signora, isn't it?'
'I know, I know. But it can happen, you know, that it comes on you very fast. My two boys took a long time, but I've known women who had only a half-hour, or an hour, so I figured that's what happened with her. I heard her, and then I heard the baby, and then I didn't hear anything.'
'And then what happened, Signora?'
'The next day, or maybe it was the day after that - I don't remember - I saw another woman, standing at the open window and talking on the telefonino.'
'In Italian, Signora?'
'In Italian? Wait a minute. Yes, yes, it was Italian.'
'What did she say?'
'Something like, "Everything's fine, We'll see one another in Mestre tomorrow."'
'Could you describe this woman, Signora?' 'You mean what she looked like?' 'Yes.'
'Oh, let me think a minute. She was about the same age as my daughter-in-law. She's thirty-eight. Dark hair, cut short. Tall, like my daughter-in-law, but perhaps not as thin as she is. But, as I told you, I saw her only for a minute, when she was talking on the telefonino.'
'And then they were gone. The next day, there was no one in the apartment, and I didn't see anyone there for a couple of weeks. They just vanished.'
'Do you know if any of your neighbours noticed any of this, Signora?'
'Only the spazzino. I saw him one day, and he said he knew there was someone in there because they left a garbage bag outside the door every morning, but he never saw anyone going in or out.'
'Did any of the neighbours ever say anything to you about it?'
'No, not to me. But I imagine some of them must have noticed that someone was in there, or heard something.'
'Did you speak to anyone about this, Signora?'
'No, not really. To my husband, but he told me not to have anything to do with it, that it wasn't any of our business. If he knew I was here now, I don't know what he'd do. We've never been involved with the police before, and it always leads to trouble . . . oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to say that, not really, but you know how it is, I mean, you know how people think.'
'Yes, Signora, I do. Can you remember anything else?' 'No, not really.' 'Do you think you'd recognize the girl again if you saw her?'
'Maybe. But we look so different when we're pregnant, especially at the end like she was. With Pietro, I looked like a . . .
'Do you think you'd recognize any of the men, Signora?' 'Maybe, maybe I would. But maybe I wouldn't.'
'And the woman?'
'No, probably not. She was there, at the window, for only a minute and she was standing sort of sideways, like she was keeping her eye on something in the apartment. So no, not her.'
'Can you think of anything else that might be important?' 'No, I don't think so.'
'I'd like to thank you for coming to see us, Signora.'
'I wouldn't have if my daughter-in-law hadn't made me. You see, I told her about it while it was going on, how strange it all was, with the men and no lights and all. It was some?thing to talk about, you see. And then when she had the baby and then they all disappeared, well, my daughter-in-law told me I had to come and tell you about it. She said I might get into trouble if anything happened and you found out I saw her there and hadn't come in to tell you. She's like that, you see, my daughter-in-law, always afraid she's going to do something wrong. Or that I will.'
'I understand. I think she told you to do the right thing.'
'Maybe. Yes, it's probably a good thing I told you. Who knows what it's all about, eh?'
'Thank you again for your time, Signora. The Inspector will go downstairs with you and show you the way out.'
'Thank you. Er . . . ?'
'My husband won't have to find out that I've been here, will he?'
'Certainly not from us, Signora.'
'Thank you. I don't want you to think anything bad of him, but he just doesn't like us to get mixed up in things.'
'I understand completely, Signora. You can be perfectly sure that he won't find out.'
'Thank you. And good morning.'
'Good morning, Signora. Inspector Vianello, will you take the Signora to the front door?