Caterina Pellegrini is a native Venetian, and like so many of them, she's had to leave home to pursue her career. With a doctorate in baroque opera from Vienna, she lands in Manchester, England. Manchester, however, is no Venice. When Caterina gets word of a position back home, she jumps at the opportunity. The job is an unusual one. After nearly three centuries, two locked trunks, believed to contain the papers of a baroque composer have been discovered. Deeply-connected in religious and political circles, the composer died childless; now two Venetians, descendants of his cousins, each claim inheritance. Caterina's job is to examine any enclosed papers to discover the "testamentary disposition" of the composer. But when her research takes her in unexpected directions she begins to wonder just what secrets these trunks may hold.
"Oddio," she exclaimed. "It's a card catalogue." When had she last seen one? And where? She approached it as a true believer would approach a relic. She reached out and touched it, ran her hand along the top and side, slid her finger under a flange and pulled a drawer out a few centimeters, then slid it silently back in place. "it's been a decade. More." Then in a conspiratorial voice, she said, "I love them. They're so full of information."
True Confession: I love them, too. Especially the flanges.
Briefly, it is the slowly told tale of Venetian musicologist Caterina Pellegrini's attempts to examine the long-lost papers of a forgotten baroque composer in order to decide which of his distant kinsmen will inherit his estate.
My synopsis is boring, and unfortunately, the book proves to be less than riveting. Almost no one Caterina encounters is telling all the truth, or in some cases, even some of the truth. Venice is more a painted backdrop than a living element of the story (as in the best Brunetti). And Caterina's character is never given the depth needed to become interesting in her own right.
'The Jewels of Paradise' is obviously plotted to become the first in a series. I will not be signing on for round two.
(A review copy was provided by the publisher.)
While there are some elements of physical danger, the mystery is primarily an intellectual challenge requiring extensive library, archival, and Internet research. I know a little bit about this kind of research, and I was puzzled by some aspects of her research strategy. For instance, due to the obscure nature of her research subject, Caterina decides to switch from using the “standard JSTOR site” to a “more mainstream search” (by which I assume she means Google). There's no mention of RILM or other specialized music indexes that someone with a doctorate in music should be familiar with. When computers and cell phone technology are mentioned, the language and descriptions seem to assume the characters' (and by extension the readers') unfamiliarity with the technology described. It made me wonder if the book's target audience is assumed to be on the low to intermediate end of the computer literacy spectrum.
Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti series is still on my TBR list, so I can't say how this stand-alone compares to her popular series. I suspect it's a different kind of mystery, and that some Brunetti fans will like it while others might not. It will appeal most strongly to readers who like cerebral mysteries and to classical music lovers. Although the setting is modern, the historical research component might appeal to historical mystery fans.
This review is based on an electronic advanced reading copy provided by the author through NetGalley.
It was a little slow going in the beginning in part, perhaps, because we needed to be introduced to characters, but once I started reading it was a page turner.
THE JEWELS OF PARADISE felt a bit bloated to me. I couldn't fault the research and accepted that the author had a few things she needed to get off her chest, but there were times when I felt myself losing interest.
Part of (my) trouble is probably that it barely falls into the crime fiction category. Sure there is a possible murder that took place some 400 years ago when a prominent man simply disappeared, and then in the current setting there is some fraud and deception happening. But the author felt too compelled to give me the benefit of her research and I also got impatient with Caterina humming over baroque music in her head.
I found the final denouement barely satisfactory. I could understand why the "cousins" were interested in the possible treasure but couldn't get a handle on what the lawyer was trying to do. Although there is some irony at the end that made me chuckle. It tied in well with the discussion in the story about people viewing things from different perspectives.
Her protagonist in this stand-alone novel is Catherina Pellegrini, an accomplished musicologist with expertise in the Baroque period. She is commissioned to return to her native Venice to review the contents of two large recently discovered chests, identified as having belonged to the late Steffani who died in 1728. Two rather shady modern day Venetians have also been identified as having joint claim on the Steffani estate.
We are then treated to an intriguing recapitulation of Steffani's life, from early mutilation as a castrato through his career as a leading chorister and then a composer in his own right while he also amassed a number of posts within the Catholic Church, complemented by diplomatic missions for various eighteenth century notables.
Leon has clearly equalled her character in the depth of her research, and she conveys huge amounts of information about the life and times of Steffani, without ever making the reader feel put upon. Meanwhile she also manages to build the tension as Catherina's investigations proceed.
All in all I found this a welcome break from the Brunetti series which I felt was beginning to feel slightly stale.
My feeling is that Leon has interested herself in the life and works of Steffani and wanted to spread the word so she manufactured a mystery story around her research in the hope of reaching a wider audience that she would have done with a straight biography.
The story is set in Venice where Caterina Pellegrini has just come home from England to decipher two trunks of documents which have been untouched since the early 1700s. The trunks belonged to an Italian Baroque composer and have recently been discovered. Two descendants of two of his cousins want to find out what treasures are in the trunk. The two of them don't get along and a lawyer arranges to hire someone to go through them to determine the contents to find out which one has the greater claim so they won't have to share the bounty.
The composer was a real person who also was active in the Catholic church. The book tells about his works--musical, religious, and political-as well as offering some information about the convoluted lives of some of the prominent people of his time. The central part of that story is the disappearance of a Count with ties to the rulers in 1694.
I would have liked to get a final report on his disappearance (interweaving fact with fiction) and didn't like having the issue unresolved.
The book focuses on the research Caterina conducts to learn about the composer. Subplots include the attorney involved with the cousins, Caterina's relationship with her sister who is a nun researching the Catholic Church (one of the best parts of the book), and the hunt for the jewels which are believed to be hidden in the trunk.
I also didn't like the use of untranslated Italian words and phrases; I don't think they were necessary to set the tone.
I hope Donna Leon's next book is back to her high standards.
Review: If you like research, you'll love this book. If you're not into how researchers work, you may like the historical intrigue that is very well told. In any case, this is written with Leon's high standards and the dry humor she always puts into her books. If you're looking for crime, it's not in this book. There is a moral ~ what is valued by one person may not be valued by others.
Leon, from all I can tell is a widely acclaimed author and you can see shadows of her skill in this offering but sadly, they are just shadows. "The Jewels" is erudite as it demonstrates the author's research into Baroque music and she does a good job of education but I think most readers will find her actual story line rather sparse. She goes to a great deal of trouble to paint the background and it's a rich tapestry but when the final curtain finally drops the result we're left with is predictable and not really all that interesting. This book is cut from the pattern of a thousand other books. The only difference is the motif she has chosen and even that is rather a niche interest.
On the up side, the book is educational and can be finished in an extended sitting even during a weeknight. While Leon's latest doesn't offer much, at least it offers it in a hurry allowing the reader to plod on to something more entertaining.