It is with a smile that we receive, open and read the latest in Donna Leon’s wonderful mystery series featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. These character-driven novels, which transcend the mystery genre, are travelogues of Brunetti’s Venice and character studies of the human condition that go beyond nationality and station. Leon is not a flashy author, but rather slips wry observations into the narrative at odd places. While her prose can be read quickly (her plots as a rule are occasionally complex but always easy to follow), it demands to be read carefully, not so much to avoid missing a detail as to note a particular turn of phrase. THE GOLDEN EGG is full of them.
"[I]t is Leon’s ability to weave into the narrative her keen observations concerning the eternal landscape and ever-changing political climate of Venice that make this series a unique one."
There are two mysteries at the core of Leon’s latest. The lesser of the two concerns a minor retail violation that may cause the mayor some indirect embarrassment due to the fact that it is an election year. Brunetti is not really interested in digging out the whys and wherefores of the violation, but his superior, Vice-Questore Patta, is very much a political animal; Brunetti thus has little choice. The greater mystery is unofficially assigned to Brunetti by his wife. It appears that a worker at the dry cleaner that the Brunettis patronize has died as the result of an accidental drug overdose. The man, believed to be deaf and of limited intelligence, was reportedly found dead in bed by his mother. The aftermath of the death was mishandled by the authorities, and there is some question, at least in Brunetti’s mind, as to whether it was an accident at all.
What is more puzzling, though, is that it turns out that the victim does not exist; at least, he does not officially, which in bureaucratic Venice is almost the same as never having lived at all. The man most certainly was a living human being, though he was not a winner in life’s lottery. Yet there is no record of his birth, medical treatment, schooling, or anything else. The dead man’s mother is very reticent as far as providing information regarding his background, relaying a story that seems to have been made up on the spot.
Brunetti relies upon his network of information to gather a fact here and a rumor there to get to the bottom of things. This network, of course, includes the tantalizing and enigmatic Signorina Elettra, Patta’s secretary, whose ability to acquire nuggets of information officially and otherwise is second to none. Soon enough, Brunetti discovers a connection between the dead man and a wealthy local family, but the primary issue that concerns him the most is who might want the victim --- a simple person with no apparent enemies --- dead. It is that investigation that carries THE GOLDEN EGG to its quietly haunting conclusion.
The mystery is interesting and, indeed, enough to carry the book. As far as the series as a whole is concerned, it is the personality of Brunetti and his interactions with those around him, personally and professionally, that I suspect keep readers loyal and coming back. The fact that newcomers can pick up on the series at any point is a plus as well. However, it is Leon’s ability to weave into the narrative her keen observations concerning the eternal landscape and ever-changing political climate of Venice that make this series a unique one.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 29, 2013