Donna Leon’s “Beastly Things” is one among a long standing series of mysteries revolving around Commissario Guido Brunetti, taking place in the heart of Venice, Italy. It’s my first novel in the progressive series, but from what I understand, it’s a mystery that’s self-contained, so readers who are just joining the series can partake with it without feeling like they’ve missed anything. For me, I didn’t have as intimate a connection with Guido Brunetti as perhaps other readers who’ve followed the series probably have, but there was enough of a balance between examining Guido’s life and the case details to draw me into the story.
The story begins with a body found in the local river, an unidentified man with a very distinct condition. The man is later identified as a veterinarian who had a very complicated personal and professional life, involving quite a few players who could’ve had a hand in his death. The story toggles between the ongoing mystery and Brunetti’s personal life and professional pursuits, with emphasis in the beginning on rounding out Brunetti’s character and his routines. There’s also special attention paid to atmosphere and political/social climate of the city. I do like the focus on these attributes, though it takes a bit longer for the story to gain momentum (I would say you learn very little about the actual mystery until about 100 pages in). Once the players are introduced as well as the conflicts, the story really takes off and keeps you guessing with some stark revelations. It starts with the illegal slaughtering of animals and develops into a complex intertwining of relationships, betrayal and corruptive practices.
If you’re looking for an action oriented mystery with sharp turns, this isn’t the kind of story that will engage you. It’s more atmospheric and contemplative than most harrowing mysteries that I’ve had the opportunity to read. Thus, depending on how you like your mystery and its respective players – this will either be a hit or a miss. Even with that, I found myself enjoying the guesswork and allowing the mystery and its players to settle on me, almost as if I were just taking the details of the collective story as it came across. There are some gruesome descriptions (forewarning to those who love animals) contained in-text, but none to the point where it’s out of context with the story progression.
Brunetti himself is a likable character, one I appreciated seeing the bird eye view into his personal as well as his professional life. I think there was only a limited window as to how much I could identify with his character since this was my introduction to him, but I liked his sense of morality and reflections. It does make me curious to see how his character comes across in the progressive series.
I would say this is probably a good novel to take on in and of itself, probably not the best introduction to Brunetti from what I can tell, but certainly worth a read for those who like a more reflective mystery with a likable detective.
Overall score: 3/5
Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher Grove/Atlantic Inc.