Thursday, July 06, 2017

Review: Earthly Remains by Donna Leon

Earthly Remains by Donna Leon, April 2017, 320 pages, Hardback, William Heinemann, ISBN: 1785151355

Reviewed by Lynn Harvey.
(Read more of Lynn's reviews for Euro Crime here.)

As the canal narrowed, they saw spoonbills ahead of them, waving their beaks from side to side in the mud as they searched for food. Instinctively the two men pulled in their oars and approached the birds silently, but one of them must have made a motion, for the two birds took wing and were gone in an instant.

Police headquarters, Venice.
The interview of a wealthy suspect – whether or not he gave pills to a young girl at a party – is being conducted in stifling heat. The girl subsequently died in hospital but that doesn’t seem to disturb their suspect. Commissario Brunetti hides his growing repugnance but is increasingly aware of officer Pucetti seated next to him, and of his reactions. What happens next is hard to describe but it is a pivotal point, an impetuous action or set of impetuous actions, starting with Brunetti shooting out his arm, groaning and then collapsing to the floor of the interview room.

In hospital later, Brunetti cannot tell whether his action had been a stalling device to protect a young man’s police career or a genuine medical crisis. But there is no doubting its effect on his wife Paola when she arrives at his bedside, leans close and demands, “What have you done now?” As Brunetti explains he comes to a realisation: that he is going to use the incident to step away from his police work and the stress of protecting himself and his staff from its psychological toll. Nevertheless he is uneasy when the hospital doctor agrees that two or three weeks break from his job is necessary. Now Paola and Brunetti must decide where he can obtain isolation and the image of rowing on the Laguna, as he had as a young man, comes to Brunetti. Paola reminds him of her family’s open invitation to stay at a relative’s small villa on the island of Sant ‘Erasmo. No children, no Paola; just Brunetti, the villa, its caretaker family and days of reading, rowing, eating and sleeping. At Police Headquarters, Brunetti’s frequently-used charade of feeble uselessness works well once more on his boss Patta. So, with a rigorously small suitcase packed with T-shirts, old jeans and his beloved Greek and Latin writings, Brunetti takes the ferry to the island of Sant ‘Erasmo where he is met by the caretaker Davide Casati and settled into the villa.

The following days accompanying Casati as he rows amongst the marshy islets and narrow tidal canals of the Laguna to check his beehives bring a kind of peace to Brunetti. They also put him in touch with his own past for Casati had known and rowed with Brunetti’s father. But Brunetti can also see that Casati is worried by something and oppressed by a sense of guilt. One hot day a fierce and sudden storm blows in whilst Brunetti is out cycling. Drenched, he manages to get back to the villa but next morning Casati’s daughter reports that her father did not return from rowing on the Laguna the day before.

An anxious and difficult search ends with finding Davide’s drowned body, floating beneath his upturned boat, his leg wrapped in the anchor rope. The death of this newfound friend haunts Brunetti and he cannot help but be drawn back searching for the truth of Casati’s death and the truth of his past.

With her Commissario Guido Brunetti books, American-born author Donna Leon has created a classic and long-running crime series; one that is not only enduring but is a detailed chronicle of Leon’s beloved Venice and a careful portrait of a marriage between classics-loving policeman Brunetti and his English Literature professor wife Paola. Followers of the series have got to know their two children, to sit at their table, eat their food and drink their wine. Brunetti's colleagues are equally familiar and established. Yet it is always possible to jump into individual books on their own terms. Donna Leon’s fine juggling act with the series’ back story adds richness and familiarity without rendering each novel indecipherable without knowledge of the previous one.

EARTHLY REMAINS itself reads as freshly and thoughtfully about contemporary life in Venice and the lives of its characters as earlier novels in the series. Brunetti has grown older and perhaps darker in his thoughts but Leon takes him away from the tourist-packed bridges and alleys of Venice and out into the city’s own setting, The Laguna. Painstaking pictures of each encounter with people, birds, islands and islets, ruined farm and villa, mirror the breadth and subtlety of Leon’s cool eye – despite writing, one feels, out of a personal passion about an environment and way of life rapidly disappearing. In EARTHLY REMAINS it seems as if this pause for a long cool look is what Brunetti himself may need in order to reconnect with his original passion for justice. Yes, good fortune smiles on him in the form of a wonderful place to recuperate, thanks to his wife’s wealthy family, and the almost supernatural cyber powers of the ever elegant Signorina Elettra coming to the rescue once again during the course of Brunetti’s investigation into Casati’s past. But a little bit of fortuitous escapism is necessary. Something needs to go right amidst a wider world of corruption, pollution, greed and personal tragedy where, as Leon has said of the current American administration vis-à-vis environmental protection – the foxes have been put in the hen coop.

Donna Leon is a marathon runner when it comes to crime series and in EARTHLY REMAINS, the twenty-sixth in her Guido Brunetti series, Donna Leon remains in peak form.

Lynn Harvey, July 2017

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