onna Leon’s “Beastly Things” (Arrow Books: London, 2013) is an unforgettable chiller. In her 21st Venetian thriller she subtly blends artful sketches of local color with an unflinching, penetrating probe of social abuse, as the familiar Commissario Brunetti investigates a death in Venice — and the meat we eat.
An unidentifiable corpse, a doctored death, and public silence about a slaughterhouse combine to make seriously frightening food for thought. About the often-toxic flesh sold commercially and the revolting violence used to butcher animals for insatiable markets.
As always, Brunetti’s (almost too?) simpatico family and his crime team flank the commissioner, offsetting a cast of characters that represent the darkest side of human nature. The book’s opening scene is as brutal as its title. Brunetti arrives at the Venice morgue as Medical Examiner Rizzardi finishes a sorry autopsy on a corpse that’s been dredged from the waters of Rio del Malpaga. The massively fat body’s grotesquely bloated neck and upper torso make Brunetti think of “a piece of meat on a slab.”
But something’s wrong. Rizzardi finds traces of a rare genetic disease (“Horrible, incurable, but not mortal…”). Though pulled from a canal, the dead man — bereft of any ID — has no water in his lungs. He does have three knife wounds to the back. Brunetti guesses he was probably stabbed and shoved into the lagoon to drift with the tide. But where in the thousand-island city did the dead man begin his journey?
Rizzardi is certain of only two things: that he was stabbed and time of death, probably around midnight the previous night. All else is on hold.
Brunetti’s computer experts soon uncover a recent photo of the barrel-chested man in life standing on a roadside in the neighboring city of Mestre. The photo makes headlines in local media, but no one steps forward to identify him. Days pass and no one seems to miss him.
The dead man, it turns out, is a veterinarian Andrea Rava, and the case will push Brunetti across the causeway that divides Venice from Mestre, its high-ground neighbor. His interviews lead him to a local animal clinic and to find out that Rava had a part-time job as vet at a slaughterhouse just north of the city.
But even then, Nava’s disappearance seems to surprise most of those who knew him. His wife had kicked out of his home after he confessed to an affair with Signora Borelli, the assistant manager of the slaughterhouse. But why hadn’t Borelli report him missing?
Leon slowly and hauntingly recreates the details of a man’s troubled life. Brunetti and his sidekick Tenente Vianello visit the slaughterhouse where the lovely Signora B. explains that Rava’s job was to check that the animals were healthy before they were butchered for meat. “But,” she adds, “you don’t want to see that.” Brunetti and Vianello insist they do.
On a catwalk above a vast, cement hall, they peer down at the torture chamber beneath them. “Six or seven yellow-booted men moved on the cement floor and did things with knives and pointed instruments to pigs and sheep… some wounded animals managed to flee, crashing into walls before slipping and falling… others, bleeding, continued to flail about with their legs…” Animal screams bound off the walls. Blood is everywhere.
Brunetti and Vianello are shocked by this hellish scene, but there’s more, and worse, to come. The sordid details that led to Nava’s murder emerge gradually.
But even after the climax they can’t get the slaughterhouse image out of their heads. Not even the home-sweet-home beauty of the Grand Canal can paper over the greed crimes they’ve had to face.
Leon’s delivers yet another masterful mystery in which Brunetti and the reader learn much more than they’d ever want to know about the foulness that lurks behind the meat we eat.