The Golden Egg is the twenty-second instalment in Donna Leon‘s Commissario Brunetti series set in Venice. As someone just finishing the third book in a crime fiction series, I find it astonishing that anyone could write twenty-two (and counting). Equally impressive is the author’s ongoing ability to engage, entertain and surprise in this deceptively simple, ultimately harrowing story.
Brunetti is given the official task in The Golden Egg of making enquiries into a possible bribery case that might embarrass the mayor, a scenario the sartorially splendid Vice-Questore Patta is keen to avoid.
Unofficially, at the behest of his wife Paola, he looks into the death of a deaf-mute man, who worked at the dry cleaners in the Brunettis’ own neighbourhood. The man died from an overdose of sleeping pills, though whether intentionally or by accident is unclear.
What is puzzling about the man-child, identified as Davide Cavanella, is how little is known about him. While Patta’s secretary, the indomitable Signorina Elettra, attends seminars on the newest techniques for combating identity theft and computer hacking, Brunetti tries to fathom how a man in his forties in highly bureaucratic Venice could leave so little trace.
Davide’s mother seems angry and defensive when questioned about his death, which sets Brunetti off on a hunt for the truth, not only about the man’s death but about his life.
The Golden Egg contains all the elements that make Leon’s books a pleasure to read: familiar characters in Brunetti’s family and colleagues, evocative descriptions of Venice, ruminations on Italian politics and society, both passionate and philosophical.
But this is no writing by numbers. Being such an established author with a loyal fan base allows Leon to deviate from the conventions of the genre. Rather than a dead body in the opening chapter, we get a glimpse into Brunetti’s family life:
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 their what communion and confirmation were to Catholics.
A dead body doesn’t appear until Chapter 4, by which stage Brunetti has been given his official assignment.
It’s only in retrospect that I realise how cleverly the story was crafted — how the dynamics outlined in the first few chapters contribute to the impact of the ending. It was only at the end, too, that I realised the significance of the book’s title.
The Golden Egg is the work of a master, entertaining, surprising and moving. Highly recommended.
The Golden Egg by Donna Leon (2013) is published by William Heinemann.