Earthly Remains by Donna Leon


I’m always surprised when the Naperville Public Library not only has something I want to read, but I’m not the 863d hold on one of three copies. And so it is that I have been able to settle down with an aching jaw, an ample supply of Motrin, a pot of tea, and Earthly Remains, Donna Leon’s latest mystery with Commissario Guido Brunetti.

What a pleasure it is to spend the evening with him, this old “friend” from previous novels. In the beginning of this book, he has just been diagnosed with the need for rest and relaxation from work and is preparing to leave his office for Sant’Erasmo in the south. How I long to accompany him and partake in his plans of rowing, or reading in bed with a fresh cup of coffee should it rain.

He is staying at a villa his wife’s aunt owns, and there he befriends Signor Davide Casati, a man whom Brunetti discovers once rowed with his own father. The skill with which this older man is able to guide the boat is compared to the old peasant in Anna Karenina with whom Levin scythes, barely able to keep up. Such a beautiful comparison, in my literary mind’s eye.

But after a terrible storm, neither Casati nor his boat are able to be found. Where could he be? Checking on his bees in their various hives all around Venice? Talking with his deceased wife at the cemetery? Brunetti calls in reinforcements to help investigate his friend’s disappearance, which, of course, is ultimately a death.

“While he waited, Brunetti went and looked out the window and allowed anomalous information to move around in his mind: a few dead bees in a plastic vial, the Aral Sea, two thousand Euros a week, dark mud in another vial. If they were pieces on a board, would he be able to move them round so that they formed a picture?”

Of course Commissario Brunetti carefully puts together the pieces, moving them around so that an answer emerges, and in the course of his detective work reminds us of the honor, and dishonor, within each of us. Although surely some, who have grown accustomed to luxurious comfort, are able to excuse their dishonorable side which can lead to murder.

While this novel is carefully executed, each piece of the mystery ringing true to current crises, my favorite part of Donna Leon’s writing is how she is able to make me dwell in Venice. Even if only for a night.

Uniform Justice by Donna Leon

I was immediately entranced by Commissario Brunetti when I read about him in Donna Leon’s first novel, Death in La Fenice. I see him as a rather more intelligent Inspector Clouseau, an untraditional detective who is committed to his wife and family, his job, and ultimately truth. (Although you could never say that Brunetti is a bumbling fool.)
But, what I really love about Donna Leon’s novels are the way that she captures Venice. I feel as if I am walking through the streets, riding on the vaporettos, stepping from the gondolas or crossing the bridges. Her description is so spot on, you can almost smell the canals, or better yet, the ristorante.
Uniform Justice opens with a death at the San Martino military academy in Venice. Suicide or murder, no one is quite sure, although many political powers are all too willing to suggest the former and try to stop Brunetti’s investigation into the later. Justice prevails, however, at least in determining the cause of death. And in a very unusual conclusion, it is left to the boy’s father to mete out justice. Or, not.
I thought this novel was somehow gentle, and atmospheric, and I almost didn’t write a post about it until I read Steven Berry’s Venetian Betrayal. Like Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code, without his utter disregard for scripture, Berry’s novel is fast paced.  I enjoyed the premise, that Alexander the Great had died with the formula for a healing medicine which several current day powers search for. But, like Gone Girl, after a certain point I tired of the drama; the action began to feel contrived simply to carry the story to its conclusion.
Given the choice between a fast paced thriller, and Donna Leon’s gentle building of a case with an investigator of character, I’ll take the later.
These two novels are what I’ve read so far for the Venice in February 2013 Challenge.

Death At La Fenice by Donna Leon

Commissario Brunetti is such a likable policeman.
Brunetti, for his part, earned slightly more than three million lire a month as a commissario of police, a sum he calculated to be only a bit more than what his father-in-law paid each month for the right to dock his boat in front of the palazzo. A decade ago, the count had attempted to persuade Brunetti to leave the police and join him in a career in banking. He continually pointed out that Brunetti ought not to spend his life in the company of tax evaders, wife beaters, pimps, thieves, and perverts. The offers had come to a sudden halt one Christmas when, goaded beyond patience, Brunetti had pointed out that although he and the count seemed to work among the same people, he at least had the consolation of being able to arrest them, whereas the count was constrained to invite them to dinner.
And, he works in such a beautiful city.
Brunetti walked up toward the hotel, still lighted, even at this hour when the rest of the city was darkened and sleeping. Once the capital of the dissipations of a continent, Venice had become a sleepy provincial town that virtually ceased to exist after nine or ten at night. During the summer months, she could remember her courtesan past and sparkle, as long as the tourists paid and the good weather held, but in the winter, she became a tired old crone, eager to crawl early to bed leaving her deserted streets to cats and memories of the past.
But these where the hours when, for Brunetti, the city became most beautiful, just as they were the same hours when he, Venetian to the bone, could sense some of her past glory. The darkness of the night hid the moss that crept up the steps of the palazzi lining the Grand Canal, obscured the cracks in the walls of churches, and covered the patches of plaster missing from the facades of public buildings. Like many women of a certain age, the city needed the help of deceptive light to recapture her vanished beauty.
This was a wonderful novel of mystery, uncovering the reasons behind the death of a famous maestro, who was discovered bent backward from poisoning after the intermission of Traviata. Donna Leon writes of her characters vividly and her mystery masterfully. I especially enjoyed the vicarious trip to Venice upon each page.
I highly recommend this for the Venice in February Challenge to come.