Home » Book Review » Acqua Alta & Quietly in Their Sleep // by Donna Leon

Acqua Alta & Quietly in Their Sleep // by Donna Leon

#5 & #6 – Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery

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//published 1996//

Okay, so originally I wasn’t going to review Acqua Alta at all because it was just a very meh read for me, and the entire mystery was based on the villain doing something that made absolutely no sense, and there was never any effort made for it to actually make sense, so in the end I was still a little annoyed about the whole thing.

But then I read Quietly in Their Sleep, and, well, I’ll go into a lot more detail below, but I definitely felt like I wanted to talk about this book.  The problem is, I had issues with Quietly in Their Sleep that were beyond the obvious plotting weaknesses.  And basically, there are a lot of things about this series I am enjoying (and the first four books were quite good), but I’m at a point where I’m going to read one more in the series, and then not continue if the mystery is as weak as these two have been.  But because I spend most of my review of Quietly discussing Leon’s completely imbalanced and vicious method of discussing Christians/Catholics/the church, I felt like I needed to talk about Acqua Alta also, so that my whole “she gets one more chance thing” doesn’t come across as a babyish response to me disagreeing with her religious views.

Because while yes, if all of her books were as savagely anti-church as Quietly, I wouldn’t continue reading the series; but the reason that I’m waffling about pressing on isn’t because one book spent the entire time dissing every person who has ever been a Christian, but because she couldn’t even back it up with a decent mystery.  And that, on top of the completely weak plot of Acqua, is why I’m not sure I’m going to bother reading another twenty or so of these books, simply in hopes of finding a few more good ones.

Okay.  So that was super long-winded, and I apologize!  On to Acqua Alta – 

*****This review contains spoilers. However, I thought both of these mysteries contained very weak plotting, so they don’t really feel like spoilers… *****

This book reintroduces us to a lesbian couple whom we met earlier in the series, either the first or second book, I can’t remember.  One of them is a famous opera singer (who is also married – or possibly divorced –  to a man and has two children), while the other is a well-known archaeologist who specializes in ancient Chinese history.  Leon really has a thing about homosexuals, every single one of her books is absolutely chock-full of them, and I’m not really sure why.  I mean, I go with it because I don’t really care that much, but at the same time, it sometimes feels as though she is rather desperately trying to normalize homosexual behavior in a sense that “No, seriously, everyone is into this.”  I don’t know how to explain it.  I think she’s trying to make the homosexuality of her characters not be a big deal, like they’re people and they also happen to be homosexual, but she tries just a little too hard.  It’s additionally confusing because she consistently gives one person in the pair a name that sounds like it ought to belong to the opposite sex.  Part of the reason I wasn’t going to review this book is because I had to return it to the library, so I can’t provide you with an exact quote, but the book starts with something to effect of, “Flavia was in the kitchen making dinner while her lover, Brett, listened to an opera in the living room.”  We then go about three pages or so more before Leon uses any pronouns to inform us that Brett is, in fact, female.  For some reason, this kind of annoys me, and I can’t explain why.  It’s like she’s trying to trick us into thinking that they’re a heterosexual couple so that we will accept them, and then does a sort of bait and switch – “Surprise!  I had to get you to like them as a couple first, and then tell you they were gay!”  But you know, whatever.  I just would like it better if she really went with the gay thing instead of acting like she’s being sneaky and clever with it.

But my actual problem with this book is the fact that the entire mystery starts when Brett, in the first chapter, is brutally attacked and beaten by a couple of thugs who get her to let them into the apartment by pretending they are bringing her important papers from the museum.  They tell her this is to prevent her from meeting with this other important guy and then they leave.  Then we go with the entire rest of the mystery with these stolen antiquities, etc., and it’s a perfectly good mystery.  The premise of these stolen artifacts is really good, the method in which they are stolen and sold is good, she pulls together various strands really well.  Throughout, the book is full of humor and wonderful dialogue, which is what has really drawn me into this series on the whole. Even these two books, that quite annoyed me, made me smile on multiple occasions as Brunetti converses with the wonderful secondary characters Leon has created.  In this story, the whole background of the acqua alta was quite engaging as well.

HOWEVER, the point of all of this is that it made no sense for Brett to not to  be murdered in chapter one.  Why in the world did the villain send thugs to beat her, but not actually kill her?  Because at the end of the book, when Brett is kidnapped and held captive by the villain, he says that he’s brought her here to kill her, and is ready to do so.  Nothing had changed between chapter one and the end of the story, and there is absolutely no explanation given as to why he had her beaten instead of killed.  Consequently, the whole mystery just felt really weak to me, like Leon had to force her villain to act out of character just so she could have a story, because it’s Brett testimony – alive – that makes the whole story move.  If she had been killed, the mystery would have been finding her killer, and they would never had made the connection to the antiquities or theft – which even more emphasizes the point that, in the real world, she would have been killed, not “warned.”

There were definitely other little weak points throughout that had me looking at the book a bit askance, but I can’t remember them and, like I said, decidedly early on I wasn’t going to bother reviewing this one, so I didn’t really take any notes.  So.

As I have been working my way through this series, I have greatly enjoyed Leon’s ability to make everyone feel human.  Most of the time, she manages to avoid those cliches of characterization, instead allowing people to have depth – as a reader, the people feel real because they are not entirely good or entirely bad.  Even the villains frequently have motives that make sense.  Brunetti is a man of strong morals, but is still not perfect – and he doesn’t think he is, either.  All of the secondary characters are intriguing in their own way, because they each possess layers.  They are not defined by a single aspect of their self.

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//published 1997//

But all of the character-depth skill from her earlier books seemed to abandon Leon in Quietly in Their Sleep.  I do not actually know Leon’s personal views of Christianity or the Catholic church, but if this book is any indication, she violently loathes them.  This book was, honestly, a difficult read for me because of the vindictive passion with which Leon used to make sure that every single individual who claimed to be a Christian was also hypocritical, greedy, sneaky, and, for the vast the majority of them, sexual perverts as well.  Out of the many priests, nuns, friars, and parishioners Leon introduces to us, none of them – not a single one – was even an almost-decent person, much less someone who was kind.  None of them had a single virtue.  Uniformly, they were disgusting sleeze-balls, driven by a lust for power (or young boys), which they hid behind religious platitudes.  At best, they were stupid, blind believers in whatever they were told.  Per Leon, only two types of people are Christians:  those who know that it is a lie, but use the lie to obtain power; and those who are so stupid and weak that they don’t realize that religion is a lie, and are too stupid to find the true way to enlightenment (that is, atheism).

The basic story is that Brunetti is visited, at work, by a young woman who used to be a nun.  Maria worked as a nurse’s aide (when she was a nun) in a nursing home where Brunetti’s mother, who has Alzheimer’s, lives.  Maria was always very kind and patient with his mother, and Brunetti is willing to listen to her story, even though it sounds a bit fantastical.  Maria has left the Order because she believes that several of her elderly patients did not die naturally, but were, in fact, murdered in their sleep.  She believes that it was because they were going to leave money to the Church, or possibly the nursing home, or maybe to the Order.  (Leon is a bit vague, so long as we realize that it is Christians that were going to get the money.)  Although Brunetti believes her story may be a bit far-fetched, he is also instinctively suspicious of anything related to the Church, so he begins to investigate.

Meanwhile, at home he finds out that his daughter, who is taking a not-required religion class at school, has gotten a poor grade in said religion class.  Why?  Because she asked questions, of course!  And no self-respecting Christian leader would ever tolerate questions.  Questions may lead to him having to actually admit that he is wrong or that he doesn’t know the answer, and NO Christian EVER would do those things, which is why questions are completely forbidden by ALL Christians EVERYWHERE.  Oh, and P.S. he also molests girls.  Duh.  Like she pretty much only had to write that because otherwise we would assume he was molesting boys.

Back to the mystery, nothing is showing up in the investigation, so Brunetti reluctantly decides that maybe Maria imagined or misinterpreted it.  Except then one of the people he questioned dies, and then Maria is almost killed by a hit-and-run driver; the accident puts her in a coma.  So Brunetti, reinspired, begins nosing about, and what does he discover???  A top-secret, very  mysterious religious sect that everyone hates and fears even though no one knows what they do because, you know, they’re secret.

And, as soon as Brunetti considered what he knew about Opus Dei and how he knew it, he was aware that he could not be sure of the truth of any of it. …

The Masons, with their rings and trowels and tiny cocktail waitress aprons, had always charmed Brunetti.  He had little real information about them, but had always considered them more harmless than menacing … But Opus Dei was a different matter altogether.  He knew less about them – had to admit that he knew almost nothing about them – but even the sound of the name was a cold breath on the back of his neck.

From this point forward, despite the fact that Brunetti has admitted that he knows nothing about this organization, we continue on with the assumption that they are, in fact, all of the things that Leon tells us we should assume all Christians are – to wit, hypocritical, greedy, sneaky, power-hungry, and sexually perverted.  The only “proof” of Opus Dei’s evil doings is in the form of a letter found by the ever-well-connected secretary, a letter written by an elderly man who says he is giving his money to the organization because they have helped him realize his family is actually a bunch of heathens who don’t deserve earthly rewards.  Of course, this shouldn’t surprise us –

Brunetti looked up.  “What do you make of these, Signorina?”

“Spiritual blackmail.  Not much different from what they’ve been doing for centuries, just a little shabbier and on a smaller scale.”

But I think that what really, really annoyed me was the constant sorrowful way Leon, both in her narrative and through Brunetti’s thoughts, continually referred to Maria’s years as a nun as a waste, because she had joined the Order when she was fifteen, and now, in her late 20’s, had left it.  Despite the fact that, by her own admission, Maria had enjoyed her years there, had found them purposeful and fulfilling, despite the fact that Maria says she has left the Order, not because she has left her faith, but because she was frightened of what may be happening in the nursing home, we are still treated to multiple opportunities to look upon her wasted youth with a sigh of regret, because obviously we can’t take what Maria says at her word, because she has been so brainwashed her entire life –

At any rate, they were gone, those hours, flown away in the same way that years of Maria Testa’s life had been stolen from her.

Because yes, years she spent in sincere service were obviously a waste.  You never hear those kinds of sentiments expressed about people who join the  military right out of high school and serve for ten years – no one says that they wasted their youth with misguided enthusiasm.  No, because obviously fervent patriotism that leads to shooting people for reasons unknown simply because the government tells us to is an excellent use of one’s youth.  But using those years to serve the elderly and spend time in prayer?  How dare the Church steal her youth, years poor Maria will never get back!  Poor, poor brainwashed Maria.

It was more than a little aggravating to be told, multiple times and in multiple ways, that truly intelligent people are never Christians.  Truly intelligent people have gained enlightenment and left the Church behind forever.  Christians are irrational; Christians don’t (and never could) understand science; Christians are illogical; Christians cannot actually defend any of their beliefs in a rational ways, which is why they have use the threat of hellfire to convince people to do stuff their way; in short, Christians are stupid.  And this may come as a surprise, but I found that mildly insulting, and not just because I’m a Christian, but because I don’t really feel that a book should eviscerate an entire group of people without at least providing one exception.  I read somewhere that if you are unsure if what you are saying about a people group (race, religion, nation, etc.) is prejudiced, replace the people group you are discussing with “Jews,” and if it sounds like something out of Mein Kampf, you probably need to rein it in a little.  Leon did not pass the Mein Kampf test, I can tell you that much.  Geezy.

But you know, honestly, I could have gotten over all of this – I could have gotten over 310 pages of constant, incessant, nagging mockery of Christianity – if Leon could have actually made a mystery that made sense – but she didn’t.  Absolutely none of the questions are answered.  We never find out where the money goes.  We’re left with vague indications that one of the priests has a Swiss bank account, but there is no record of the money from those originally-dead people’s money going there, or anywhere else associated with the Church.  Maria recovers and runs away from the hospital still in fear of her life, and that’s all we know about her.  No one gets accused, much less arrested.  There is no indication that, if this Opus Dei group was murdering elderly people, they are now going to stop.  The whole thing is left just as tangled as it was in the beginning.  The only thing that is certain is that the Church is only comprised of people who are stupid, hypocritical, greedy, selfish, and sexually perverted.  And, I’m sorry, but it takes a little more than that to convince me that your story has any substance.

We are supposed, I believe, to be left with this feeling that this group is SO POWERFUL and SO EVIL that they have terrified everyone so hey, we’re just going to keep murdering old people and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.  I guess?

And that completely ignores the fact that we never even find out how half the supposedly-murdered individuals were killed??  Like we found out that the one woman, who seemed 100% normal when Brunetti talked with her, is actually completely insane, unhinged (to the point that spittle is flying out of her mouth as she madly attacks Brunetti with a knife) because of, of course, a religious mania.  The vague, unnamed priest (although Brunetti “knows” who it is, she never names him) has convinced this woman to kill a couple of people, including her father.  The death certificate, by the way, said her father died of a heart attack, while in real life, apparently this woman smothered him with a pillow.  Question:  Are the symptoms of heart attack and suffocation the same…??  Or was the doctor who wrote the death certificate also paid off??  How did this completely crazy woman hide her craziness so well?  Why was she planning to come and kill Maria in a melodramatic fashion with a ridiculous knife when she could have just smothered her like she did the old man…???  The whole thing just felt like a completely cop-out.

I don’t know.  I realize that there are bad people in the church, and that there have been many scandals within the Catholic church involving sexual perversion.  But it felt like those types of things could have been addressed in a more balanced manner, because there are also many genuine, sincere Christians/Catholics, who have devoted their lives to service from a sense of true belief, not because they are secretly trying to rob people.  I mean, seriously, even Mother Teresa got a dig.

“Doesn’t matter much, does it?” Vianello asked …  “Whether Mother Teresa gets the money or it goes to crooks …  no one ever finds out where that money goes, do they?  She’s won all those prizes, and someone’s always collecting money for her, but there never seems to be anything to show for it, does there?”

“Well, at least they had a decent death, those people she takes in.”

“They’d probably rather have a decent meal, if you ask me.”

Just.  Wow.  You’re right, she was doing it for glory, power, and money.  Also, she never fed the poor people she helped, just gave them a clean bed to die in.  I can’t even.

I will try one more of Leon’s books.  I genuinely enjoyed the first four.  They had some depth and some grit that really made them engaging reads.   But Acqua had some serious plot holes, and Quietly, obviously, left a lot to be desired, as most of it felt like a vindictive explanation as to why the Catholic Church should be purged from the earth and didn’t really bother wrapping up the actual mystery, so long as we understood that it was all, like apparently every other problem in the world, the fault of the Church.  All that to say, she gets one more try to pull this series back together.  I really, really like Brunetti as a character, and I love his family and their interactions, but I can’t handle mysteries that don’t actually answer questions, and I don’t appreciate villains being villains simply based on prejudice.

Have any of you read this book?  Am I completely overreacting…????

PS Just so we’re clear, I’m not really filled with rage or anything over this.  More just like confused and moderately offended that she expected me to just be willing to overlook her complete lack of a mystery because she blamed it all on a secret, powerful club?  Really?

4 thoughts on “Acqua Alta & Quietly in Their Sleep // by Donna Leon

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