Wednesday, May 15, 2013

THE GOLDEN EGG by Donna Leon

If you're already a Donna Leon fan, all I need to tell you is that the 22nd Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery was published March 26.

If you're not already addicted to the Brunetti books, you can check out a complete, chronological, annotated list of each book in the series here.

Or you can read a perceptive short review of The Golden Egg in the New York Times's April 5 crime column by Marilyn Stasio. In fact, even if you are a fan, I recommend this review. Stasio highlights the important theme running through this book:
“If the Brunettis had a religion,” Leon tells us, “it was language.” And so this thoughtful policeman is also led to brood over the debasement of language by the politicians and bureaucrats who cynically confuse, misdirect and misinform the public.
In The Golden Egg, language
  • is the basis for hilarious dinner-table games at the Brunetti household.
  • obfuscates the police bribes Brunetti is asked to investigate.
  • is oddly absent from everything connected with the life of the slain dry-cleaner assistant. 
  • becomes an important tool in Brunetti's investigations (should he speak Italian or Veneziano? Will his Neopolitan assistant be able to relate, since she doesn't speak the local dialect?).
Language is also the subject of Brunetti's extended meditation in the closing chapter. Here's a sample:
He drank a glass of wine, left the second one unfinished, drunk with the words that crossed the table, their different meanings, the fact that they indicated time: future and past; that they indicated whether something had been done or was still to do; that they expressed people's feelings: anger was not a blow, regret was not tears. At one point, Paola expressed a wish and used the subjunctive, and Brunetti felt himself close to tears at the beauty of the intellectual complexity of it: she could speak about what was not, could invent an alternative reality.
Language is probably why so many of my friends - many of whom are writers, editors, or publishers, and most of whom love words - are hooked on Leon's mysteries. Language, and food. Brunetti's wife, Paola Falier, seems to have few responsibilities at the university where she teaches English literature; she is nearly always home in time to prepare magnificent meals. Fritto misto. Baked finocchio with rosemary. A salad of carpaccio of red beet, ruccola, and parmigiano. Involtini of chicken breast. Cake with fresh black currants and whipped cream. I can't imagine why Brunetti's Cookbook, aka A Taste of Venice, is no longer in print. Maybe it should have been called, more accurately, Paola Falier's Cookbook.

To be sure, readers of detective fiction don't always appreciate the Guido Brunetti series. Some of the books are police procedurals, while others, like this one, focus almost entirely on Brunetti's deductions. There may be violence, but it is usually offstage. It may take awhile to get to the murder - if indeed a murder has occurred. It's often not too hard to figure out whodunnit. Brunetti's wife and children are as important as his coworkers at the questura. And Leon keeps tossing in Italian words, as I just did, without translating them.

Those are all reasons that I love the series, but I don't want to take you there on false pretenses. If the subjunctive, used correctly over a bowl of risotto, never brings you close to tears, perhaps you should read a different series instead.

P.S. If you hate spoilers, don't pay any attention to this book's title.

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