Tag Archives: Donna Leon

Summer Mysteries

Magpie Murders
9780062645241_p0_v6_s192x300   The housekeeper trips on the vacuum cleaner cord and falls down the steps to her death; within days her employer’s head is chopped off with a sword, and suspects are everywhere.  Almost every character has the motivation to kill the victims in Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders.

Book editor, Susan Ryeland introduces the story with a delicious warning, promising more than the next best seller by one of her popular writers, Alan Conway.  In a clever mystery within a mystery, Horowitz channels Agatha Christie in a crime story with more than red herrings and formulaic clues.  Pay attention when you read or you will miss something.

After the editor’s short preface, the character in her author’s book, Atticus Pund, decides to solve one last crime in the three months the doctor has given him to live.  With his trusty assistant, Fowler, he leads the investigation of the English manor house murders.

If you are a fan of Agatha Christie, you know, however complicated the plot and no matter how many characters you cannot remember, she will save you in the last chapter with her wrap-up and reveal not only the murderer but also the cause and effect.  But, what if the last chapters were missing?

After following the suspects and Pund’s finally declaring he knows who did it, the story suddenly stops and Horowitz drags the reader reluctantly back to the opening scene of the editor reading a book soon to be published.  Not having the last chapter, she begins to summarize the action and decipher the clues to uncover the ending in pages she hopes will be on her desk when she returns to her office.  Happily, just like Christie, she neatly recalls all those meaningful incidents the reader has forgotten.

The story now shifts and gains momentum as the book editor becomes the detective, not only looking for those lost chapters but also possibly looking for the murderer of her author.  As she questions each suspect, she uncovers his idiosyncratic humor placed within each of his mystery books, and the hidden clues about people he knew,  creating characters based on those he would mock.  Horowitz sprinkles the narrative with references to real authors the reader will recognize.

Although I usually hurry through the last pages, wanting the solution – and I did peek at the cryptic last line on the last page (“I had been the detective and now I was the murderer”) – I slowed down for the last hundred pages, reluctant for the story to end.  When it does…each of the murders is solved, and I never suspected whodunit.

Horowitz is a new author for me, and when I researched his background I found not only is he the author of the teen spy series featuring Alex Rider but  was also commissioned by the Conan Doyle Estate  to write two new Sherlock Holmes novel, and commissioned by the Ian Fleming Estate to write the James Bond novel Trigger Mortis.  In Magpie Murders, Horowitz references Sophie Hannah’s authorized reboot of Agatha Christie in The Monogram Murders.  

In an interview with the New York Times, Horowitz said he has already finished his next adult murder mystery, in which he has written himself into the plot. “Of course, I’m the one who is constantly fooled,” he said. He added, “A book does magic without saying, “Pick a card.” A whodunit is, at its best, a huge magic trick that says, “I’m going to tell you a story.”

I can’t wait to read it.

 

Earthly Remains: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery

9780802126474_p0_v2_s192x300  Guido Brunetti is the kind of police commissario you would want in your corner.  He is civilized and soft-spoken, reads the classics every night, loves his university professor wife and precocious children.  Guido is an honorable man amidst the corruption.  As a fan of Leon’s series, I enjoy her descriptions of the rhythms of life in Venice and Guido’s family as much as the solving of the crime.

In this twenty-sixth book in the series, Commissario Brunetti needs a break.  After faking a heart attack to save his colleague from attacking a nefarious criminal, Brunetti is sent to the emergency room, and the doctor readily prescribes him two weeks of rest, away from the bureaucracy and crime of Venice.  Conveniently, his wife’s wealthy family owns an isolated villa on a nearby island with a stocked library for the erudite detective (Leon provides titles) and the promise of exercise rowing the deserted canals surrounding it.

Brunetti passes his days with the caretaker of the estate, Davide Casati, an old friend of his father, rowing into the laguna and checking on Casati’s beehives, until the death of bees and a sudden storm shatters his idyll.

Casati is found dead, and Brunetti finds himself back in investigator mode.  As he researches the man’s death, Brunetti finds an insidious cover-up of toxic waste illegally dumped in the laguna, leading him to question whether Casati’s death was accident or murder.  Leon answers in the end, but not without a strong statement about pollution and its effect on the environment.

Related Reviews:   More Guido Brunetti Mysteries

 

 

 

The Waters of Eternal Youth – A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery

9780802124807_p0_v2_s192x300   Guido Brunetti and I are old friends, so Donna Leon’s The Waters of Eternal Youth was a welcome connection.  This twenty-fifth in the mystery series featuring an erudite Italian inspector has me visiting Venice again;  a wealthy little old lady – albeit a countess – is the catalyst for an investigation of her granddaughter’s near-drowning fifteen years earlier.

Manuela, the beautiful fifteen year old who loved horses and feared the water, was saved from drowning when she fell into the canal, but not before losing consciousness for too long and suffering brain damage.  She is now thirty and has the mental capacity of a seven year old.  Her grandmother is convinced her falling into the canal was not an accident, and asks for the case to be reopened.  Although the statute of limitations would preclude any consequences if a villain were found, Brunetti decides to reopen the case, as a favor to his mother-in-law.

The alcoholic who saved Manuela suddenly remembers something, but before Brunetti can question him, the man is brutally killed.  In his clever and quiet way, Brunetti follows the trail that leads to a rapist turned murderer.  After the climax of catching the criminal, Leon offers a satisfying denouement that brought tears to my eyes.

As a long-time resident of Venice, Donna Leon paints a credible picture of the canals and bridges, with an insider’s knowledge of neighborhoods and eating places.  She sprinkles the narrative with comments on historical preservation, housing problems, and the new influx of African migrants.

Like most Italians, Brunetti enjoys a good meal and Paola, his patient wife, is not only an expert Italian cook but also a university professor of literature. Food is often enhanced with references to the classics.  When not eating or investigating, Brunelli ponders – while reading a book in the original Greek, or connecting criminal motives to that of Macbeth or Dante.

Reading another of Guido Brunetti’s crime-solving adventures offers the unique combination of Italian culture with crime mystery.

Review of another Donna Leon MysteryBy Its Cover

 

By Its Cover by Donna Leon

9780802122643_p0_v3_s260x420While reading Donna Leon’s latest mystery – By Its Cover – I remembered the first time I had heard of a book thief targeting rare books for their maps and illustrations.    When I lived in Maryland,   Gilbert Bland was caught stealing maps from rare books  in the George Peabody Library in Baltimore, Maryland.  In her publication “Preventing Library Theft,” Audrey Pearson noted:

“…Bland had used a fake identification card to use the library, and had been committing various premeditated thefts, with plans for many more recorded in his notebook. Upon further investigation, Johns Hopkins officials found that Bland had also visited the libraries at {other universities}. Many map dealers around the country had been purchasing the rare maps from Bland for some time, and had acknowledged that they always wondered how he continually had such great inventory… However, Bland had such low prices that most dealers chose not to question his practices… For all of the damage Bland did to libraries, and all of the hundreds of thousands of dollars of theft, Bland was only sentenced to eight to ten months in prison.”

Since that theft in 1995, other maps have been ripped from rare book collections in the United States, and in 2012, thousands of books in Naples’ sixteenth century Girolamini Library were systematically damaged and stolen for sale on the black market.  Donna Leon uses a rare books collection in a prestigious Venice library as the setting for the twenty-third in her series of Guida Brunetti mysteries.   This is my first experience with the expat American author and her hero in crime fighting, Guido Brunetti, Commissario in the Venice police force – how appropriate that the story is about books.

As Brunetti follows leads, including a former priest, an Italian playboy, and a Kansas professor, the murder of one of the prime suspects changes the rhythm of his pursuit.  I am only into the first 100 pages, but am already hooked.

If a mystery could be classified as literary, Leon may have found the formula.  Brunetti is well read and constantly including allusions in his conversation; his appreciation of the beauty of Venice and Leon’s descriptions through his thoughts and observations creates a beautiful backdrop and an appealing counter to the grisly reality of crime and corruption in the city.  At one point, Brunetti reminisces about the time he ran away to work in the fields for a day when he was twelve years old.  Returning home with his pittance wage, his mother asked him if he now realized “how hard a person had to work if all they had to work with was their body.” Lesson learned: “…all you’ll do is work for enough to eat. Even then I knew, I didn’t want to spend my life like that.”

The erudite police commissioner reads English history books at night, has conversations about philosophy with his wife, and stops to smell the Spring flowers on his way to work – all the while using his intellect to solve crimes.  But perhaps his comments on the political realities of the city offer the best insight into his internal struggle – the cruise ships ruining the canals, the corruption of the rich, the influence of the Church…  Brunetti’s character is as fascinating as the mystery he is solving.

 

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Making the List

k0091272Although I faithfully note new books I want to read,  I can never be number one on the library wait list.  It doesn’t help that the book is not yet listed when I log in, anxious to find it.  It doesn’t help that the library “wish list” can only include books in cataloguing.  Mostly, it doesn’t help that I forget about the book until I see another ad or review – usually weeks later.  By then, other more diligent readers have already ordered the book, and I am number 198 for the new Jeffrey Archer, or 20 for Donna Leon’s new mystery, and still holding at 14 for The Luminaries.   Is it any wonder that my electronic book bill has soared?  Sometimes, I just can’t wait.

A friend recently sent me an article from the Washington Post about the slow-reading movement and the effects of digital reading on the brain – Serious Reading Takes A Hit from Online Scanning and Skimming.  It struck me as I “skimmed” the article that library users may be promoters of this movement, sometimes forcing me to revert to digital text that may be eroding what is left of my brain.  Michael Rosenwald writes in the Post:

Before the Internet, the brain read mostly in linear ways — one page led to the next page, and so on… Reading in print even gave us a remarkable ability to remember where key information was in a book simply by the layout…We’d know a protagonist died on the page with the two long paragraphs after the page with all that dialogue.

The Internet is different. With so much information, hyperlinked text, videos alongside words and interactivity everywhere, our brains form shortcuts to deal with it all — scanning, searching for key words, scrolling up and down quickly. This is nonlinear reading…

Will we become Twitter brains?”

I worry that books will disappear – like bookstores.  I happily still prefer holding the pages and flipping back to remember who died – harder to do on an e-book, even with those red bookmarks.  But when the wait is long, and the price is right, those electronic books fill my need every time.   How about you?

 

 

 

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