Book Review: UNTO US A SON IS GIVEN by Donna Leon

Thought-provoking, and with a wonderful sense of place, prolific author Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series is set in and around Venice, Italy. Her books have been adapted into a German television series, and have won numerous international awards. In a very thoughtful way, they often gently explore topics pertaining to cronyism, nepotism, abuses of power, and environmental concerns. Interestingly, Leon, an American who has lived in Italy for decades, and whose novels have been published in thirty-five languages, has always requested that her books not be translated into the language of her adopted home.

What are the odds that I would read two, separate, crime fiction novels (The Silent Patient and Unto Us a Son Is Given) , both referencing Euripides, within months of one another? In this installment, Donna Leon’s Police Commissario, Guido Brunetti, featuring in his twenty-eighth mystery, partakes of, ponders, and applies universal, life lessons from, Ancient Greek tragedies. Brunetti is a patient and learned police chief who, with the encouragement of his wife, reads the classics in his spare time! His wife, Paola, often reads with him when she is not teaching at the University, or shopping for, and preparing delicious lunches for the family (the descriptions of meals in the book will make the reader’s mouth water). An heiress to one of the largest fortunes in Venice, Paola is devoted to Brunetti and their two children, and still fills, and seemingly enjoys, the traditional role of doing the lion’s share of the household chores, while still holding her role as a professor.

Within Unto Us a Son Is Given, the Commissario’s very well-to-do father-in-law, Orazio Falier, a count and a descendant of Florentine princes, asks Brunetti to discreetly look into a legal situation involving Falier’s best friend and also godfather to Paola. It would seem that this particular family friend, Gonzalo Rodriguez de Tejeda, has been consulting with “avvocati" (lawyers) to be able to legally adopt a much younger man, but an adult, nonetheless. Il Conte would like to know the motivation for this adoption. Is his dear friend making a sound decision, or is he being manipulated, as Gonzalo’s legal heir stands to inherit his estate? When bodies start collecting at the morgue, the need to understand Gonzalo’s legal, and personal, arrangement, and whether the deaths are related in some way, becomes even more urgent.

Fans of this long-running series will be happy to be in the company, once again, of Brunetti’s loving family, and to experience a bit of the culture and traditions of the beautiful, historic city of Venice, this time around, in Springtime. Many of the regular and beloved secondary characters are in attendance, such as Brunetti’s police colleague, Dottoressa Claudia Griffoni, Vice-Questore Patta, who is Brunetti’s superior at the Questura (the police headquarters), and of course, essential and valued team member, Dottore Patta’s secretary (and unofficial Brunetti researcher), Elettra Zorzi. I have only read, years ago, a couple of other books in this series, and was able to slip right back into Brunetti’s world. That being said, Unto Us a Son Is Given is a police procedural that is very light on police procedure; it is light, as well, on violence, darkness, and grit. Its underlying mystery and interweaving subplots unfold at a measured, traditional, “la dolce far niente pace”. Reading Donna Leon’s latest mystery novel is like returning to Venice on a warm, spring evening to savor a gelato and a relaxing passegiata with old friends.

Unto Us a Son Is Given by Donna Leon book cover image.jpg

Best for Crime Fiction Readers:

  • Who enjoy crime fiction with a more measured, traditional pace, and very little darkness and violence.

  • Who are interested in the writings of Ancient Greece, and are interested in Ancient Rome. Please note that this is a tangential part of the plot - it is not its focus.

  • Who are admirers and lovers of Italy and Italian culture, especially of Venetian culture. If you enjoy “armchair traveling” to other lands, and enjoy slower-paced, more traditional, intelligent mysteries, the Commissario Brunetti series may be one to add to your list.

  • While there are certainly differences between the two series, fans of the “comforting” Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series by Louise Penny may well enjoy reading Ms. Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series.

    Pages: 259 (Hardcover)

Publisher’s Blurb (minor spoilers):

"Your situation is always ambiguous, isn't it, Guido?," his father-in-law, Count Orazio Falier, observes of Donna Leon's soulful detective, Guido Brunetti, at the beginning of her superb 28th Brunetti novel, Unto Us A Son Is Given. "The world we live in makes that necessary," Brunetti presciently replies. Count Falier was urging his Venetian son-in-law to investigate, and preferably intervene in, the seemingly innocent plan of the Count's best friend, the elderly Gonzalo Rodríguez de Tejada, to adopt a much younger man as his son. Under Italian inheritance laws this man would then be heir to Gonzalo's entire fortune, a prospect Gonzalo's friends find appalling. For his part, Brunetti wonders why the old man, a close family friend, can't be allowed his pleasure in peace. And yet, what seems innocent on the Venetian surface can cause tsunamis beneath. Gonzalo unexpectedly, and literally, drops dead on the street, and one of his friends just arrived in Venice for the memorial service, is strangled in her hotel room--having earlier sent Gonzalo an email saying "We are the only ones who know you cannot do this," referring to the adoption. Now with an urgent case to solve, Brunetti reluctantly untangles the long-hidden mystery in Gonzalo's life that ultimately led to murder--a resolution that brings him way more pain than satisfaction.

Once again, Donna Leon brilliantly plumbs the twists and turns of the human condition, reuniting us with some of crime fiction's most memorable and enduring characters. 

About the Author:

Donna Leon (born September 29, 1942, in Montclair, New Jersey) is an American author of a series of crime novels set in Venice and featuring the fictional hero, Commissario Guido Brunetti.

Donna Leon has lived in Italy for over thirty years. She has worked as a lecturer in English Literature for the University of Maryland University College - Europe (UMUC-Europe) in Italy, then as a Professor from 1981 to 1999 at the American military base of Vicenza (Italy) and a writer. 

Her crime novels are all situated in or near Venice. They are written in English and translated into many foreign languages, although not, by her request, into Italian. Her ninth Brunetti novel, Friends in High Places, won the Crime Writers' Association Silver Dagger in 2000.

MINM Overall Rating: 4/5 Stars