Donna Leon: The Girl of His Dreams - A Book Review

by ronpass

In this book review, I discuss Donna Leon’s 17th detective novel, The Girl of His Dreams. I look at what makes Leon a great crime writer and critique this intriguing book..

Bacground to The Girl of His Dreams

Donna Leon - Award Winning Detective Novelist

I recently finished reading Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams and decided to write this book review to share my thoughts about the story and the author.  I have read 10 of Leon’s twenty crime novels and enjoyed everyone.

I love reading detective novels as a way to relax from the pressures of my day-to-day work.  I find Donna Leon’s novels, set in Venice, a welcome distraction.  The setting has its own fascination with the Police often travelling to scenes of crime via a police launch.  You are immediately immersed in Venice as the police travel the canals or walk the streets past significant icons.  The richness of these journey descriptions adds life and color to Leon’s detective stories.

The description of the life of the police, their families and the community they have to deal with is very real.  Leon paints a realistic picture of the resource limitations, political interference, bureaucratic constraints, territorial battles and media pressure.  Over the past few years, I have conducted numerous management development workshops for police, including detectives and officers from Crime Scene Investigations, Child Protection Units and Tactical Crime Squad.  Many of Leon’s allusions to the everyday life of police ring true and especially the family and bureaucratic pressures.  In one sense, I see her writing as a tribute to the dedication of police that I experience every week through my workshops.  

Leon discusses social issues as a backdrop to her crime novels.  The plight of the poor is starkly contrasted with the opulence and splendour of the rich.  The life of illegal immigrants, many of them living as Roms (Gypsies to some people), is part of the rich canvas that Leon paints with her words.

What appeals to me is Leon’s easy writing style and her strong characterizations.  The characters in The Girl of His Dreams are once again painted with rich strokes that leave you with a clear image of the person before you.

The Main Characters - The Girl of His Dreams

Donna Leon's Primary Characters

These characters are common to Leon’s many detective novels. They provide a rich tapestry as a backdrop for the crimes under investigation.

Commissario Guido Brunetti

Brunetti is the lead character in Leon’s novels. He is at his obstinate best in The Girl of His Dreams.  He has little patience for bureaucratic bungling and red tape and continues to employ unorthodox methods, including reinterpreting his boss’s instructions to suit what he wants to do.  He has a long standing battle with his Superior and this reaches new heights in the The Girl of His Dreams.  Brunetti’s dedication is unerring, his methods somewhat questionable. His unpredictability continues in this novel as he is faced with a challenging case with conflicting evidence and seemingly intractable problems.  In contrast to the roughness of his general demeanour, Brunetti is a reader of the Classics, a love that he shares with his wife Paola.


Brunettis’ wife is painted as a strong counter to his wilfulness.  She does not hesitate to challenge his logic or to highlight his biases and stereotypes.  A heated argument with Paola assumes a central role in The Girl of His Dreams and leaves Brunetti silent and sullen.  The incessant questioning and flawless logic of his daughter, Chiara, does little to lighten his mood as he confronts his own depression and despair over the girl that haunts his dreams.  Brunetti’s personal life shows further signs of strain as he has to deal with his uneasy relationship with his father-in-law while investigating a horrible crime.

Vice-Questore Patta

Patta is a career policeman and Brunetti’s boss.  He is forever on the look-out for his next promotion and this obsession drives his every decision.  Brunetti is constantly battling with his self-serving boss.  In The Girl of His Dreams this ongoing battle reaches new heights as Patta is trying to avoid every action that might lead to media exposure, disturb the life of the well-to-do or upset the hierarchy.  Of course, Brunetti delights in doing all of these unconscionable things if they will help him to solve a crime.  Brunetti does little to endear himself to his boss by challenging the favored treatment accorded to Lieutenant Scarpa, for whom Brunetti has an abiding and deep dislike and a certitude about his incompetence and vindictiveness.

Signorina Elletra

This engaging woman is Patta’s personal assistant who has no time for his self-serving ways or for his ineptitude.  She prides herself on her dress, her efficiency and her capacity to undermine her boss in the pursuit of justice and equity.  She is the ever-present computer nerd who is an ally of Brunetti and a great source of critical information.  Signorina Elletra has the uncanny ability to gain access to databases, sometimes unauthorized.  She often collaborates with Brunetti in “snowing” her boss – having him think that he has made a sound decision based on his own insight (while being totally unaware of the machinations and manipulations of his two subordinates).

Ispettore Vianello

Vianello is Brunetti’s faithful offsider who is constantly challenged by the rule-breaking behavior of his boss but remains loyal despite this regular affront to his desire to play-it-by-the-book.  Brunetti’s behavior in The Girl of His Dreams provides a further challenge to Vianello’s personal loyalty to his boss.

The Girl of His Dreams

By Donna Leon - her 17th Detective Novel
The Girl of His Dreams (Commissario Brunetti Book 17)
Only $10.73

Venice Canal

Venice Canal
Venice Canal

Main Plot

Death of an 11 Year Old Girl

The central plot of The Girl of His Dreams is the death of an 11 year old girl whose body is found in the Grand Canal.  Brunetti is confronted with the search for her identity and for the cause of her death.  The vision of her body floating in the water near the steps of the Grand Canal becomes the subject of his dreams as he experiences an abiding sadness and frustration about her death.  His investigation leads him through the minefields of prejudice, the unadulterated hatred of police shown by a Rom community and the protected lives of the aristocracy.  His task is made more difficult by his own prejudices and the nervousness of his boss, Vice-Questore Patta, who is on edge at every turn of the investigation.  Brunetti cannot retreat to the tranquillity of his home life as it becomes stressful too during this turbulent investigation.

Secondary Plot

A Religious Scam?

This is a confounding sub-plot which leaves you wondering why Leon even considered including the issue.  A preacher is under suspicion for his attempts to raise funds for what seems to be a scam.  Brunetti is obsessed with pursuing this dead-end investigation despite its potential to lead nowhere…and that is precisely where it leads.  So this under-developed plot seems to be in stark contrast to Leon’s normal clear structure and well-developed crime investigations.  However, if you stand back from the literary merit of its inclusion, you can see that the sub-plot highlights the reality that many times police resources are diverted to fruitless pursuits because of political priorities and/or obsession with potential adverse media attention.

Book Review Conclusion - The Girl of His Dreams

A Critique and Recommendation

This is one of Donna Leon's crime novels that has received a mixed reception.  The confounding sub-plot has left many readers wondering about its inclusion.  The main plot, however, is well developed, the characterizations are as rich as usual and the intrigue continues throughout the book.

First-time readers of Donna Leon’s detective novels are advised to start with her earlier works such as Death in a Strange Country.  This will give a better foundation to the characters, the location and social issues addressed by the author.  However, I have found that you do not need to read Leon’s crime novels sequentially – I certainly didn’t and yet I have found each novel both perfectly understandable and absorbing.

If you are an established Donna Leon fan, I would recommend you read The Girl of His Dreams, while making allowance for an under-developed sub-plot which makes its own very subtle political statement.

Donna Leon's Detective Novels

Buy One of Leon's 20 Crime Novels
A Refiner’s Fire: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery (The Commissario Guido Brunetti Mysteries,...

Atlantic Monthly Press
Only $25.2
Beastly Things (Commissario Brunetti Book 21)

Atlantic Monthly Press
Only $1.99
So Shall You Reap: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery (The Commissario Guido Brunetti Mysteries...

Atlantic Monthly Press
$13.49  $8.0
Wandering through Life: A Memoir

Atlantic Monthly Press
$15.59  $9.14
The Jewels of Paradise

Atlantic Monthly Press
Only $12.72
Death at La Fenice: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery

Harper Perennial
$10.39  $4.09

Donna Leon

Biography of Award Winning Detective Novelist
Donna Leon is the American author of a series of crime novels set in Venice and featuring the fictional hero Commissario Guido Brunetti. Ms Leon has lived in Venice for over twenty-five years. In addition to writing the Commissario ...
Updated: 06/06/2011, ronpass
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mivvy on 08/13/2011

I love Donna Leon and her insight in Italian affairs. I always read her books with a map of Venice next to me.

Ralpapajan on 08/12/2011

This is a super review. Makes me want to read the book. I had never heard of Donna Leon before, Than you for posting.

Kay Iversen on 06/30/2011

I agree that the religious scam, the fake preacher, & the suspicious priest (who turns out to be good) seem to be a sub plot Leon meant to develop, then oddly did not. Even the priest's hinted-at disease was dropped. Not like Leon. But the story of the gypsy children is so rich & suspenseful that I think this is, nevertheless, one of her best mysteries. I have read six or seven so far.

mulberry on 05/30/2011

I haven't read any of Donna Leon's novels, but it's a name I will note to seek out.

Jewelsofawe on 05/27/2011

Sounds interesting for sure.

bev-owens on 05/22/2011

Donna Leon sounds like an author that I would thoroughly enjoy! I'll have to look and see if I can get it downloaded to my Nook...should probably start with the first one and work my way through.

chefkeem on 05/22/2011

I will go to our local second-hand book store and look for Donna Leon novels. Sounds very interesting.
To clarify: Our second-hand bookstore is actually a first-hand operation. Only THE BOOKS are second-hand items. Or third-hand. The Fourth Hand, however, is a fascinating novel by John Irving. Funny, too.

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