Donna Leon’s Trace Elements is the latest of Brunetti’s Mysteries, the series of books in which we follow Venetian detective Guido Brunetti during his investigations in the beautiful Italian city. Published on 2020, Trace Elements is Brunetti’s 29th book. Her latest book, my first book review – could this be any more ironic?
Last time I was in Spain, in September this year, it was my Saint’s name day. I know in the Anglo-Saxon culture this is not a thing (apart from Saint Patrick’s Day, of course), but in Spanish and Latino culture your Saint’s name day is (or used to be) a celebration as important as your birthday. In fact, before birth certificates became as important as they are today, people didn’t even know the exact day they had been born. So, they had a celebration on the day of their Onomastics – which means, the day Catholics had chosen in honour and memory of the Saint that held their same name.
So, as I was saying before this very long introduction on Spanish traditions from literally my Great-Gran’s time, it was my Saint’s name day on 18th September. No one cared very much but my lovely Grandma, who always remembers to bring me a gift even if I tell her not to! But I really do appreciate she takes the time to look for a book for me – if it wasn’t for her, my shelves would be pretty empty and I truly hate that. This time, she brought me a crime novel from an author she had read before: Trace Elements, from Donna Leon.
The one she gave me is in Spanish, of course. I have it as Con el agua al cuello, which roughly translates into being in over your head. Though I guess it makes a reference to the water levels in Venice and, of course, the plot about water testing (but more about this later). It’s published by Seix Barral, but you can find it in English from the hand of Penguin House.
By the way, this is not in any sense an sponsored post (I wished!!!).
So, let’s dive into Donna Leon’s Trace Elements Book Review, shall we?
What is Donna Leon’s Trace Elements about?
The story brings us to summer in Venice, where we find detectives Guido Brunetti and Claudia Griffoni on their way to a hospital for terminal patients. They’ve been called there on behalf of a Benedetta Toso, who is wanting to talk to Neapolitan detective Griffoni. Benedetta is a patient of cancer that has recently arrived at the Ospedale Civile (civil hospital), after having been treated in private clinics, without great results. She is only 38, but the advanced state of her disease has brought her to a point where she can barely speak to the detectives. Eventually, they leave with a couple of sentences: They killed him. Dirty money.
She is referring, of course, to her husband Vittorio Fadalto, dead in a car accident a couple of weeks earlier.
A highly medicated woman might not be fully aware of what she is affirming, but Brunetti and Griffoni make the promise that they will try to find out what happened to Vittorio. Even if that means facing their own moral convictions: is it worth trying to make justice when the justice system is corrupt?
Critical Review of Trace Elements: a crime story where the crime is vague
I had no expectations when I started reading Trace Elements, in part, I guess, because I don’t usually read crime novels. The only crime books I have ever read were Agatha Christie’s (she keeps coming back to my mind these days), and she did things very differently from Donna Leon… and from anybody else, really. As I previously mentioned, I didn’t know Donna Leon’s work either, but I was in part expecting that thrilling sensation that one feels when they’re reading Agatha’s murderer stories. I didn’t get it, I can tell you that now. But the book definitely wasn’t trying to sell you that, so we can’t say that it failed in delivery because there was no promise of a thriller.
Instead, Trace Elements is more of an investigation kind of novel, were you probably are smarter than the investigator. Of course I’m no police woman to tell anybody how to do their research. But I would say if a person is very concerned about some “analysis results”, and there is some water testing involved in the story, there might be a correlation there. Of course, it could have been (as both detectives thought throughout the whole of the novel) cancer test results, as Benedetta, the woman who called them, was sick in the hospital. But wouldn’t you think that maybe, if her husband worked for a water company, that that may have had something to do with his killing? I know I did.
But Brunetti didn’t until page 200 or more. Oh, well!
This can be ignored by the fact that you’re not in Venice at 40º C under the sun, which probably makes your brain more lucid than his. Fair enough. However, I can’t overlook the fact that most of the investigation is undertaken by the chief of police’s secretary, signorina Elettra. She does all the Internet research, which nowadays would be 75% of the work, whatever you’re trying to find out. She even finds out where the dead guy worked – I mean, Brunetti, seriously? Do your job, man!
I don’t forget the fact that who had been called to the hospital at the beginning of the novel was detective Claudia Griffoni, not Brunetti. However, she barely is in the novel and she doesn’t take part in the investigation whatsoever. She is only there in their visits at the hospital and at the very end, when she is very well expelled from the room where a confession is made. The criminal thought having a woman in the room wouldn’t let him be honest enough. Funny. I guess there are people who think that way. And I’m not saying the story would have been any better if a woman was leading the investigation, but it seems to me that it would have made more sense. Otherwise, detective Griffoni is just there as an ornament, to show how women are more sensitive to other people’s suffering, since she’s the one doing all the talking in the hospital while Brunetti looks like an idiot sits on a chair trying to understand human feelings.
Throughout the book it’s also mentioned an incident with two pickpockets (two young girls) who steal something from some important wife and she makes a big fuzz. Overall, I don’t understand why this story was added to the novel. It doesn’t add anything to the main story, and it seems to be there only to make a point (a vague point) on how bad and corrupt Italian politicians are. Which I’m sure could have been done differently. Also, I don’t know how this story ended here. Did it actually end? I’m not quite sure, to be honest. It might have been brought up as a link to future novels. What do I know? We’ll have to wait and see.
What did I like of Donna Leon’s Trace Elements?
I know I’m a harsh critical reader. I’ve been an avid reader and movie watcher since I can remember, and I know very well what I like and what I don’t like. As a fictional writer there are certain things that I consider good practices, and everybody who has made the bad decision to ask me about it knows that I’m very concerned about well-constructed characters and coherence.
I could say that I liked Trace Elements because my Gran gifted me it and I wouldn’t be lying. But I have to make a bigger effort, because this book is not completely terrible. No book is completely terrible, or at least, I still haven’t found one that is! So here’s what I liked about Trace Elements.
So, I haven’t been to Venice yet because it’s one of those places that seem so full of people it’s unreal. So I couldn’t tell you if the descriptions of the place are accurate or not. BUT there’s something I loved here: the author doesn’t waste any time trying to describe the city further than what you need to know.
Brunetti has always lived in Venice. Therefore, he’s not going to go describing every little thing tourists would find amazing. It’s his city, he knows every corner and his main concern, at least during this novel, is to find the bad guy (if there’s any) and avoid the heat wave over Venice. I liked that, it makes everything more natural and it allows you to focus on the story, rather than the environment.
At the same time, it gives you an idea of how annoying tourism can be. And it’s probably not completely OK to think this way (after all, it’s what keeps some cities – like Venice – moving), but when 70% of the population is tourists, it’s definitely worth talking about it.
I have said already that the plot of the story has something to do with water. Funnily enough, there are tons of mentions of water in the pages of this book. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence, I think it’s very well thought to bring you to the idea that water is important, but that it can be trafficked with too.
Of course, we are talking about a city that sits on water. But mentions of water are not only referring to the rivers Po and Piave, in which estuary is settled the city of Venice. We can find numerous passages about drinking water. This is because it’s summer, and it’s terribly hot in the streets, but this can’t be a coincidence either. Leon is making Brunetti ask for water due to the heat constantly, so that we remember water is a synonym of life. That without water, we can’t exist – we couldn’t even stand a heat wave.
Overall, I have to say Trace Elements is quite an easy to read book. I read it in two or three days (including a flight Malaga – Glasgow), and it was entertaining. It’s only around 350 pages, so it’s not heavy, it doesn’t seem like it’s never going to end, etc. Plus, Leon uses Italian terms in order to refer to some characters or to imitate better the Italian voices that can be lost in translation. That’s cool, although maybe a little bit unnecessary. I also had a lot of fun with some names, that my mind automatically changed to food words. For example, Pascalicchio became Pistachios for the whole book – I guess I was quite hungry while reading it!
Now it’s your turn! Whether you’ve read anything about Donna Leon before, or just love crime novels, I’d like to know what you think.
Also, if you enjoyed the post, let me know in the comments below and I will keep writing books reviews. I had a lot of fun with this one (probably because I basically roasted it?) and would love to keep recommending books. Especially now that Christmas is getting closer: books are just a great Christmas gift!
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