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.