The setting is Venice, but not the Venice of serenades and moonlight and gondoliers. This Venice is dark and in the grip of corruption. A body strangely disfigured has been found floating in a canal, and it is the task of Commissario Brunetti to identify it and to discover how and why it ended up there.
Brunetti is an intelligent and somewhat intellectual officer who reads Greek literature for recreation, is adept at interviewing, and has an ability to recall useful facts. He has an intelligent and supportive wife, Paola, a competent sergeant, Vianello, the formidable Signorina Elettra the computer wizard,and superior officers who can be obtuse and awkward, a lively and interesting cast of characters. Brunetti and Vianello spend a surprising amountof time cruisiing the canals chasing witnesses and taking coffee- and lunch- breaks!
Brunetti thinks he haas seen the dead man before, and by various means discovers him to be Dottor Nava, a "veterinarian"(sic). His wife says he was worried about something in the days before his disappearance, when he had taken a part-time job in a slaughter-house. It soon becomes clear that something shady is going on at the abattoir: involving big business, complicated family relations, and falsification of statistics. This is all uncovered after Brunetti visits the slaughter-house and experiences the shocking practices there, described chillingly graphically. After the horrors we are given a measure of relief at the funeral of Dottor Nava, attended by his patients which brings a peaceful close to a tense and disturbing book.