#195: OUR ANIMAL FRIENDS. An interesting essay in the Guardian recently examined the idea that animal characters are becoming more and more rare in contemporary fiction—paralleling the facts that we have lost some 60% of our animal population since 1970, and that a million species of plant and animal life are in imminent danger of extinction. Obviously animals are getting the rough end of the deal, and specifics of this have been the theme of two mystery novels from writers normally as far apart in attack, mood, and personality as can be imagined: Colin Cotterill, author of the Siri Paiboun mysteries set in Laos, and Donna Leon, hallowed author of the Commissario Brunetti stories set in Venice.
Cotterill’s novel Don’t Eat Me (he always has great titles) begins with a terrifying one-page chapter (if you ever have nightmares about being attacked by animals or are claustrophobic—well, hang on to your hat) before reverting to the fragrant, swacked humor of life in impoverished Communist Laos: “Life sped by in Vientiane like a Volkswagen van on blocks.” Doctor Siri’s retired thoughts are taken up with a project suggested by his chance acquisition of a movie camera and twenty reels of film: an adaptation of War and Peace jiggered to be about the Lao Communist revolution. His friends in turn—the cast of friends, lovers, associates and nemeses Cotterill has been spin-drying since his first book, The Coroner’s Lunch—are taken up with a corpse discovered lying in a public square in an odd and alarming condition (no spoilers). The plot winds itself around to the contraband exporting of animals to European zoos, with enough stray detail of the cruelties involved to make the most indifferent heart recoil. By the end of the book, aided as well by the psychic sympathies for the animals in captivity of Mr. Geung, a young Down Syndrome man who has worked with Siri in his forensic lab, the double meaning of the title, the revenge plot in which a human has bared his own unexpected fangs, and the aplomb of the narrative have blended to make Cotterill’s message effective and memorable.
Beastly Things is the twenty-first of Donna Leon’s novels about Commissario Guido Brunetti, and here too the title will go through a prism of meanings by the time you’ve finished. As with many of Leon’s mid-career novels (The Girl of his Dreams, About Face, and the follow-up novel, The Golden Egg) the structure is basically a police procedural, in this case identifying a man found stabbed to death in one of the Venetian canals; it all goes along in orderly fashion, each piece set in the puzzle, with an absolute confidence of storytelling, matched with our own certainty from past experience of Leon’s novels that the surface calm will be well exploded by the denouement. Midway through, true to the theme, there’s a scene in which Brunetti and his assistant, Vianello, visit a slaughterhouse; it’s her Sinclair Lewis moment, unblinkingly horrid, all the more effective by its follow-up, Brunetti and Vianello’s return home, so sickened and shaken by what they’ve seen they can’t speak of it to each other. The story has not only Leon’s mastery of plot—the victim is identified (a veterinarian), the murderer and motives exposed—but her deftly manipulated atmosphere; note the punctuating description of Spring-season flowers, which at the end are funeral wreaths. And in the final chapter Leon does a little masterstroke of closure: the victim’s funeral, attended not only by his family and associates, but by his animal patients, their noises and cries punctuating the silence of the service. This is Leon’s bow to what animals can mean to us, as companions, as friends, and it raises the book up like a final aria, which, like Brunetti’s last sight of a bright green parrot outside the church, “lifted his heart and wiped it clean of any funereal gloom.” Brava.
Don’t Eat Me, by Colin Cotterill. Soho Crime, 2018.
Beastly Things, by Donna Leon. Penguin Books, 2013.