Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Donna Leon

Some people like plot-driven mysteries, with lots of sex, gunplay and car crashes. Other people prefer character-driven mysteries, with lots of rumination, insight and local color. I'm one of the latter.

Right now I'm four chapters into Donna Leon's 22nd whodunit, The Golden Egg. Its first chapter is set entirely at the family dinner table of Commissario Guido Brunetti. This is a family of intellectuals, including the Brunettis' teen-age children, and they revel in wordplay.

"If the Brunettis had a religion, aside from a formal adherence to some of the outward, decorative manifestations of Christianity, it was language. Puns and jokes, crossword puzzles and teasers were to them what communion and confirmation were to Catholics. Bad grammar was a venial sin, deliberate corruption of meaning was mortal. The children had taken pride in reaching the stages of awareness where they, too, could partake in the progressively more serious sacraments; raised in this faith, they did not think to question its values."

Now wouldn't you love to go to their house for dinner?

The first three chapters involve no crime, except for a reference to petty bribery. Leon simply introduces us to her dramatis personae, including Vice-Questore Patta, Brunetti's pompous boss; Signorina Elettra, the police station's brilliant and sly secretary, and Inspector Vianello, Brunetti's assistant and sounding board. We also meet Venice, its sights, sounds, smells and especially cuisine.

Not until Chapter Four do we finally meet the homicide victim.

Slow to start? Not at all. Like P.D. James, Donna Leon is a master of both scene-setting and psychological suspense. From the very first, she enlists the reader's intellect in a conspiracy of discovery. We know from the first that nothing is wasted, that clues abound in her casual asides. She makes us eager to read on, to find out what's coming.

That takes art as well as skill.

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