Review: Donna Leon – Earthly Remains

I was always slightly embarrassed when I admitted that I’d never read a Donna Leon book. There are more crime fiction authors than I have time to read but when the publisher William Heinemann offered me Leon’s latest book Earthy Remains to review, my only question was: do I have to have read any others in the series? By my reckoning, this latest offering featuring Commissario Brunetti is the twenty sixth book in the series and there must be a fascinating backstory to the characters that I couldn’t possibly catch up on. I was, however, assured that Earthy Remains could be read as a standalone. And what a joy it was.

I’m going to break my reviewing habit of giving a precis of the novel and just extol its delights. Firstly it’s a gloriously nuanced read. In a crime fiction world of twisty plots and surprises ready to jump out of you at every corner, here we have a mystery presented evenly without fanfare and, yet, I was totally gripped. This was largely due to Leon’s gradual immersion of the reader into the crime. We care that Brunetti has been dispatched to one of the islands on the Venetian lagoon and follow the development of his friendship with Casati, his father’s former oarsman. Therefore, we care about Casati’s disappearance and the impending sense of  doom that shrouds the search.

Leon also gives a textbook example of how to integrate setting into a crime novel. Like the best of the Scandinavian crime writers, she presents a plot that couldn’t have happened anywhere else. We get insights into Venetian rowing, laguna biodiversity and the keeping of bees and it’s all interwoven into the mystery  with a light touch. The crime itself is realistically unspectacular and although all the seeds are sown years earlier, there are no trite conclusions or pat endings.

I’m sure there are readers of Crimepieces who are huge Donna Leon fans and don’t need telling how wonderful a writer she is. For those of you who haven’t tried Leon’s work, I can assure you that you can start with Earthly Remains. It was a wonderful read.

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13 thoughts on “Review: Donna Leon – Earthly Remains

  1. I’m so glad to hear you liked this book so much. I love Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti books, have read all of them except this one; it’s not available at the library yet. But when I get it, I will hunker down, turn off all electronics and read.
    It’s Brunetti, Paola Falier, Venice, Italy. Great character studies, reflections, stories, descriptions and more.
    And Happy Birthday! Don’t worry. You have many happy, healthy and writing years ahead of you.

  2. Hello Sarah. I’ve been to Venice a few times, and love the city. I’ve never read a Donna Leon book either, preferring English and Scandi/Icelandic crime. As these are based in Venice I will have to have a much closer inspection of said crime books.
    Hope you enjoyed your birthday btw.

    • Hi Kathy – I had a very relaxing birthday, thank you! I usually prefer translated fiction for my European reads but this book was just so good. I’ve had a few comments on my FB page saying that the rest of the series is well worth a read. Something to stock up on for holidays I think.

  3. I”m so very glad you liked this one so well, Sarah. Leon really is a hugely talented writer, and her Brunetti series has, in my opinion, remained consistently good over time. One thing I like about the series is the real sense of Venice that one gets from the novel. And, of course, the regular characters are nicely drawn, and it’s always nice to ‘see’ them again. If you get the chance to read more, I hope you will.

  4. I like her a lot and once saw her give a reading and answer questions. She was formidably in her own authority! I’ve just been reading a non-fiction book by her My Venice and other essays which is a great read – very funny and quite caustic!

  5. Donna Leon is formidable, although in her 70s. She has strong views and they come across in her books. Usually she’s dealing with a political or social issue, but it’s woven well into the story and doesn’t take over or overwhelm the reader.
    She rarely metes out justice to people who are highly connected, wealthy, part of the government, etc., as she says this is realistically portraying life.
    And I agree that her books are consistently good, although some are outstanding.

  6. And this is Leon’s first book that takes place outside of Venice, so it has a very different feel to it, more relaxing and the reader is transported to the lagoon, the boat quietly going along the water, nature, etc.

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