Wednesday, January 9, 2013


After writing 21 detective novels featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, it's not surprising that author Donna Leon needed a break.

Still, having read all 21 of the Brunetti books, I was expecting Jewels of Paradise to be book 22 in the series. It is not, and I was disappointed.

Disappointed because by now the characters - the lovable detective from Venice; his wife, Paola, and their two young adult children; his sidekick, Sgt. Vianello; his insufferable boss, Vice-Questore Patti; and the indomitable Signorina Elettra - all seem as familiar as Facebook friends, and I wanted to stay involved in their lives.

But my nostalgia is no reason to keep Ms. Leon from expanding her horizons. I was more disappointed because Leon's new book simply didn't hold my interest.

A lot of the book has to do with biographical material concerning Agostino Steffani (1654-1728), churchman, diplomat, and nearly forgotten composer. (Hint: Leon's plot will be easier to follow if you read the Wikipedia article first. Want to hear some of his music? Cecilia Bartoli has a new album, Mission, devoted to his work [you can listen to the NPR program about it here].)

But don't come to this book thinking it's historical fiction. It's closer to historical research as done by a high-school student - and there's no afterword telling us which parts of the story are historical and which invented.

The main character, Caterina, does not seem to have much of a life outside the library. We learn even less about the other characters (though her sister, Cristina the Religious, might be worth a book of her own someday, or at least a bit part in a Brunetti novel).

The plot is thin. Somehow two 300-year-old trunks have been found, and two cousins each claim inheritance rights. Caterina, a musicologist, is charged with reading all the documents in the trunks and figuring out which, if either, has claim to the material.

There aren't many scary parts. At one point, you think scariness is developing, but (spoiler alert) it doesn't.

There isn't even much good food - but I suppose without Guido's ever-cooking scholar-wife, Paola, in the kitchen, there wouldn't be.

And when all is said and done, I know what was in those trunks, but I'm still wondering who the trunks belonged to, and how they came to Venice, and what Opus Dei had to do with the whole situation. Maybe my mind was wandering when all that was explained ...

Why I kept reading: (1) I'm loyal to Donna Leon. Up till now, she's been one of my favorite detective story authors. (2) I appreciate her wry observations about Italian culture and the Catholic Church. (3) I kept thinking the plot would heat up.

If you are a diehard Donna Leon fan like me, you should read it too - and please let me know what you think. I confess that I began skimming the historical parts; maybe I missed something important. If you have not yet become a Leon addict, however, don't start here.


Anonymous said...

I do so agree with your review!

LaVonne Neff said...

My husband, however, is now listening to the audiobook and enjoying it a great deal. He's a classical musician--that may add to his enjoyment (he went to the library and checked out a CD of a Steffani "Stabat Mater"). And he loves Leon's writing and her immersion in Venetian culture, as do I.

Anonymous said...

Not finished, but not impressed. I always love Leon's novels but not this "mystery?"