If you are a more than occasional reader of this blog, you will be well aware that I am a big fan of Donna Leon and her Commissario Brunetti detective series, set in Venice. I have, however, previously commented that I’ve found some of her more recent instalments to be disappointing as she has let her focus on big picture social issues cloud the actual storytelling.
I’m pleased to report that, having taken time off to write a non-Brunetti novel. The Golden Egg, the 22nd Brunetti novel, is a return to form. At this point, I’d also like to express my thanks to Grove/Atlantic for allowing me access to the book via Netgalley.
In The Golden Egg, Brunetti undertakes two unconnected investigations - an official one, at the behest of his awful boss, Patta, into what appears to be a minor infraction by the daughter-in-law of the mayor and an unofficial one, at the behest of his enchanting wife, Paola, into the death of a deaf, mentally-handicapped man who worked at their dry cleaners.
Whereas the political investigation turns out, like so much else in the Venetian and Italian body politic, to be a familiar tale of corruption and nepotism, Brunetti’s unofficial investigation into Davide Cavanella is much more interesting, as Brunetti soon finds that there is no public or official record of Davide anywhere. Suspicious? Yes. But for Brunetti, sadness is the overwhelming emotion as he contrasts the lonely and isolated world of Davide with the conversation and love-filled lives of Rafael and Chiara, his children.
I suspect that, for some crime fiction fans, Leon’s writings can be frustrating as she moves across different sub-genres, sometimes offering a classic police procedural, at others a more philosophically minded story and at others a story that is almost tangentially a crime novel. They work for me as I feel very drawn to Brunetti’s fundamental decency and humanity. Working in a decaying political and moral environment that is reflected in the physical decay of Venice, he and his close colleagues, Vianello and the lovely Signorina Elettra, maintain their honesty in the face of cover-up and deceit.
The Golden Egg is a good example of Leon’s best work, in my view. It’s reflective, concerned with ideas of language and justice and infused with a warmth that comes to the fore in Leon’s descriptions of Brunetti’s home life, the glorious meals cooked by Paola and their love of, respectively, Latin classics and English literature. Having said that, I do have to concede that other reviewers are less enamoured of the reflective side of Leon and prefer the more traditional instalments in the series.
In the end, Brunetti tracks down the truth behind Davide’s life and death, although, as with many of the Brunetti novels, there is no comfortable ending with an arrest and punishment. The solution of the crime is all and the reader can only hope that the perpetrator’s circumstances provide sufficient punishment.
To summarise Brunetti and The Golden Egg, I can do no better than quote Marilyn Stasio in The New York Times:
“Meanwhile, the commissario carries on as he always does, solving one crime at a time, reversing one injustice after another, then heading home to drink a little wine, read a little Tacitus and play another little language game with his family.”
And, if there is any justice for readers like me, long may he continue to do so.