Sunday, April 07, 2013

Crime Fiction, Venice, the Commissario -- Yes, Donna Leon

Donna Leon's 2013 crime novel THE GOLDEN EGG features Commissario Guido Brunetti and takes us again to the canals and back streets of Venice -- a multilayered city whose layout is so complicated that even this life resident and seasoned police detective reaches again and again for his copy of the guidebook Calli, Campielli e Canali. Dark, damp doorways at the water side of structures echo for the Commissario the complicated families around him, some with pedigrees nearly as long at the city's.

THE GOLDEN EGG is far from a standard crime novel, however. Leon opens at the Brunetti home, where one of the most endearing of crime fiction couples, Guido and his wife Paola, are enjoying an evening meal and conversation with their two teenaged children. The family plays a word game in the conversation: One offers and ending, the next provides a sentence or two that preceded the end of a story, and so on, back to someone proposing the first sentence of the "story written in air."

The game quickly becomes a metaphor for detective work, as Guido receives a phone call at work from his distressed wife. Paola's abrupt question to him -- "You know the boy who doesn't talk? At the dry cleaner's?" -- is a lead-in to letting her husband know the "boy" is dead. Actually it's a young man who's died, and the assumption has been that he is deaf, and perhaps also "dumb," not just in the sense of unable to speak, but also in terms of mental capacity.

Yet both Guido and Paola find the abrupt and probably suicidal (surely not criminal) ending to this nameless young man's life tragic, and both feel guilty that in all the years they've used the cleaning service where the "boy" has done simple tasks, they never asked his name. Guido, mired at work in a highly political assignment for his reliably self-centered boss, begins to probe the death.

Seasoned mystery readers will expect murder to emerge from Guido's investigations. Be assured that Donna Leon's skilled and evocative tale does involve crime -- but you'll have to wait for it with Guido, as he pushes backward through the story of the young man he'd barely noticed before death.

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