The Jewels of Paradise
By Donna Leon
Atlantic Monthly Press; 244 pp. $25
Venice, opera and mystery are the three elements that tie together the various projects of the prolific writer Donna Leon, an American based in Italy who is best known for her popular mysteries featuring the urbane, warm-hearted detective Commissario Guido Brunetti. Since the 1992 publication of Death at La Fenice, Leon has churned out the mysteries — in which Brunetti investigates crimes exposing Venice's seamy underbelly — at the rate of about one per year. Opera-lovers also may know that the writer not only works opera into her mystery plots but serves as the benefactress of Alan Curtis's Complesso Barocco ensemble, with which she has collaborated on several projects.
Now, inspired by Cecilia Bartoli's recently released CD Mission, showcasing the music of the enigmatic real-life Italian Baroque composer and church cleric Agostino Steffani, Leon has penned her first stand-alone novel, The Jewels of Paradise. The book features a new protagonist, Caterina Pellegrini, a thirty-something musicologist and Baroque opera specialist who jumps ship from her dull junior-faculty position in Manchester, England, to return to her hometown of Venice to … solve a mystery. Two recently discovered trunks, locked and unopened, once belonging to Steffani, may contain anything from gold to original music manuscripts to mysterious "jewels of paradise." Two of the composer's greedy descendants are locked in battle over who is entitled to what's in the trunks and what they may stand to gain after they are opened. Since the trunks are assumed to contain letters making detailed musical references, which are thought to have been written in French, Italian, German and ecclesiastical Latin, the feuding descendants have hired a lawyer, Doctor Andrea Moretti, to help sort things out. It is Moretti who determines that the trained musicologist Pellegrini is just what the situation calls for. It's a highly unusual job offer, but evidently with so few chances for real primary research in the Baroque opera field, it is just too appealing to pass up.
This is the somewhat improbable outline of The Jewels of Paradise, which shares some features of the Brunetti mysteries — Venice's mash-up of high and low culture, corrupt businessmen and Italian-style family squabbles. It also shares Leon's elegant prose, with humorous, wonderfully detailed descriptions as seen through the eyes of her heroine, such as a description of one of the feuding descendants, whose bloated, puffed-up face "had pushed out the possibility of beauty, leaving the wreckage of a man." But unlike the Brunetti mysteries, in which plots typically move forward with force, this novel is meandering. Instead of finding dead bodies and doing battle with the Venice police department and the city's corrupt politicians, Caterina spends her research time mostly sitting in a foundation office or in the library, poring over letters and ruminating on music written three centuries ago. She also exchanges hilarious emails with Cristina, her favorite sister, a nun with outspoken views on the Catholic Church who holds advanced degrees in theology and is helping Caterina in her research, especially as it concerns castratos. (Was her childless composer a castrato, or wasn't he?) There are dinners with the intelligent but mysterious Dottor Moretti and exchanges with the sometimes prickly Roseanna, who manages the foundation office.
The Jewels of Paradise is set in a world whose disregard for Baroque music stands in contrast to the views held by its principled and passionate heroine, the daughter of a violinist in the Fenice orchestra who would have preferred a career as a singer. Leon sprinkles the book with eruptions from Caterina, which often take the form of internal narratives. ("She read the first line: 'Deh, non far colle tue lagrime,' hearing the exceptionally beautiful largo as she mouthed the words. Suddenly there appeared the voice of a solo oboe, and Caterina's voice was stilled by the enduring spell of its sound.") She loathes that Steffani not only is underappreciated today but was similarly overlooked by his contemporaries. ("She felt something close to outrage that a mere Baron would make fun of a musician…. She turned back to the first page and let her mind play through the music again. Oh, how perfect it was, that figure in the introduction, only to be repeated in the high register, right from the start of the aria.")
As the book nears its conclusion, its point seems more to resuscitate a composer the world cares little about than to explore a mystery of locked trunks and feuding relatives. This is likely a consequence of the fact that the publication of Leon's novel was meant to coincide with the release of Bartoli's disc. Nevertheless, the mystery does get neatly wrapped up, the identity of the titular jewels is revealed, and the greedy relatives get their just rewards. As a stand-alone novel, this apparently will be Leon's only mystery starring musicologist Caterina Pellegrini. But it is fun to dream of future installments in a musicologist–mystery series, set in places such as the Palais Garnier, the Bolshoi and the Metropolitan Opera — perhaps with a few more dead bodies, just to keep things interesting.
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