Earthly Remains, by Donna Leon, is the twenty-sixth instalment in the author’s Brunetti series of crime fiction novels. It is the first that I have read and can easily be enjoyed standalone. Set in and around the Venetian Lagoon, the islands and waterways play an important role. Refreshingly for crime fiction the protagonist, Commissario Guido Brunetti, is happily married with children and an apparently stable past. He drinks but not to excess, confides in his wife, and is pragmatic in his approach to people and work.
The story opens with a police interview during which Brunetti takes drastic measures to prevent a junior colleague risking his career when goaded by the arrogance of the wealthy lawyer they are questioning. As a result of his actions Brunetti is signed off work sick and decides he would benefit from some time away from home. Thanks to his wife’s family connections he secures a stay at a villa on one of the more rural local islands where he can spend time rowing, an activity he enjoyed as a boy. The property is cared for by Davide Casati who Brunetti discovers was a friend of his father, a connection that breaks down the barriers of formality between strangers.
The two men spend their days out on the water taking Casati’s puparin between small islands where he keeps beehives. They find that, in some of the hives, the bees are dying. Casati gathers samples to be tested in an attempt to discover why. He is greatly upset by what is happening, more than Brunetti would have expected. Casati mutters darkly about being to blame for this and his wife’s death. She died from cancer four years previously and he has never recovered from his loss.
Brunetti pays little heed to these outbursts until one weekend, after a storm, Casati fails to return to the home he shares with his daughter. Naturally she is concerned voicing a fear that her father, a competent boatman, may have succumbed to his continuing grief and chosen to join his wife in death. With time on his hands and unease about his new found friend, Brunetti decides to investigate.
There is an almost languorous feel to the prose yet somehow this seems apt given the setting. Brunetti shows awareness and appreciation of his surroundings alongside skill in reading and manipulating the people he meets. He notes the irony of the gratitude he feels when offered small services by strangers, tasks he takes for granted when performed quietly by his wife. He recognises the foolishness of his desire to appear ‘manly’ and the concessions he allows women over men.
A rich tapestry of a novel that explores many facets of wrong-doing and the reasons they are too often overlooked. The sense of place evoked is inspiring, even if locals do regard tourists as an infestation. This is an enjoyable read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, William Heinemann.