Acqua Alta

Donna Leon

‘Acqua Alta’ was the first of the Commissario Brunetti novels that I read, and after finishing it I reached up and placed it on my favourite bookshelf straightaway. Since then, I have read over a dozen more of the novels about the gentle Commissario, his wife and children and his colleagues in the police headquarters, the Questura of Venice.

If you feel that the guidebooks on Venice lack information, then read ‘Acqua Alta’. It will help you understand Venice better and appreciate it more.

The title itself is what every Venetian dreads. ‘High water’ means getting out the wellingtons and umbrellas and wading to work. No one likes to see St Mark’s Square two foot under water.

These novels set a very high standard for detective thrillers. There is accuracy in the details. Donna Leon explains the best route to take while walking from A to B, the frequency of the boats and exactly where they stop, the vegetables and fruit available in the market at the different times of year.

What do the novels tell us of Venice?


    • Using Venetiano, the language of Venetians born and raised in the city, means that you belong. This is the language used among Venetians, who change to Italian to talk to someone from Milan or Naples. Unless you speak Venetiano, you are a foreigner, and you have to prove yourself worthy of being accepted. This takes some time! Brunetti and his colleague and friend, Vianello, speak Veneziano. Their boss, Vice-Questore Patta, who is from Sicily, does not.


    • If people from Rome or Naples are regarded as foreign, then the tourists from other countries are not on the same planet. They are viewed with some amusement because of their clothes and behaviour and also with some annoyance because there are so many of them. Just one cruise ship can bring three or four thousand people into the centre of the city at a time. Imagine life in Venice when several cruise ships arrive on the same day. As the tourists walk around in groups stopping to stare and to take photos with their mobiles, they strangle the normal, day-to-day life of the city.

We see the tourists through the eyes of Brunetti and this ‘puts us in the know. We become ‘one of the locals’ and feel a little superior.

“Brunetti hated acqua alta with the passion that all Venetians felt for it, felt an anticipatory rage at the gaping tourists who would cluster together on the raised wooden boards, giggling, pointing, snapping pictures and blocking decent people who just wanted to get to work or do their shopping so they could get inside where it was dry and be rid of the bother, the mess, the constant irritation that the unstoppable waters brought to the city.”


    • The weather is very cold in winter and very hot in summer. Brunetti puts up with both extremes, either in an overcoat and a scarf in January or a sweat-soaked shirt in July. So much for the idea of many northern Europeans that it is never cold in the Mediterranean.

“Leaving the hospital, Brunetti noticed that the sky had darkened, and a sharp wind had risen, sweeping across the city from the south. The air was heavy and damp, presaging rain…He pulled up the collar of his coat, wishing he had thought to wear a scarf that morning, and hunched his head down, propelled from behind by the wind.”

The novel begins with a violent attack on Brett, who is a renowned archaeologist. She has been working in China but is now staying in her apartment in a palazzo in Venice. Enter Flavia Petrelli, a famous soprano who is staying with Brett. Flavia is singing the title role in ‘Tosca’ in La Fenice, the Venetian opera house.

If you happen to buy the paperback in the photo, you will notice, I hope, a glaring error in the blurb on the back cover. It refers to the attack on Brett Lynch, with which the novel opens. I quote: “The attack, in the beautiful palazzo home of Flavia Petrelli, reigning diva of La Scala, had come with a message.”

On page one of the novel, we read: “At the other end of the vast room that took up much of the top floor of the fourteenth-century Venetian palazzo, its owner and Flavia’s lover, Brett Lynch, sprawled across a beige sofa…”

The writer of the blurb had not even bothered to read the first page of the novel! Nor, apparently, had anyone else who worked at the publishers! This is amazing. I am not sure what conclusion to draw from it. Perhaps publishers adopt an equally cavalier attitude towards choosing which books to publish. I hope not!

Read about Brunetti’s family: first, his wife, Paola, who spends hours reading Henry James. Brunetti himself relaxes with Tacitus and Suetonius! Then meet their teenage children, Raffi and Chiara, who grow up and learn with each succeeding novel.

Read about Brunetti’s workplace, the Questura. On one side there is his vain boss, Vice-Questore Patta, who is always impeccably dressed, snobbish, and hates to upset any powerful or rich suspect by investigating them. His sidekick, Lieutenant Scarpa, is selfish and, which is far worse, malicious.

On the other side we have Sergeant Vianello, who helps Brunetti through the most risky and dangerous episodes in every case, and the mysterious and beautiful Signorina Elettra, the secretary who manages to coax from the computer information vital for Brunetti’s investigations.

Beg, borrow or buy the novel, and I hope it is in better condition than mine.