Donna Leon, Earthly Remains Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN 978-0802126474
It may seem at first sight a bit far-fetched to see resemblances between Donna Leon and Sara Paretsky, but their trajectories are not dissimilar. Mutatis mutandis, Paretsky’s PI, V. I. Warshawski, was ground-breaking simply by being a woman. The early books followed a well-known template, and poor V.I. suffered more than her share of bruising and battering. After a few in the genre, good, PI adventures, Paretsky’s pioneering moved into social issues, particularly women’s, and her books had a lot to say. Not least, she put Chicago on the map of celebrated cities in crime fiction. Blacklist won the CWA Gold Dagger in 2004. V.I.’s great friend is a doctor, Lotty Herschel, an Austrian-Jewish WWII survivor.
A generation and more later, Donna Leon created a male commissario in Venice, Guido Brunetti, and gave him a Henry James-loving, university lecturer wife, whose family belong to the Venetian elite. She also provided Signorina Elletra, a remarkable secretary for the Questura’s Vice-Questore, the loathesome clothes-hanger, Patta. Two strong women and, for that matter, two quite strong children. The early books concentrated on women’s issues, while all the books have something to say about corruption in Venice, where she no longer lives. Her latest novel begins by appearing to be about the stress and abrasions any detective might find himself facing, day in and day out, when—by a fluke—Brunetti finds himself on medical leave, which he takes by going to a house owned by one of his wife’s aunts, where he can be quiet and relatively solitary while he decompresses. Of course this leads elsewhere, first to the discovery that Davide Casati, the handyman who takes care of the house, was an old friend and rowing companion of his father, earning Brunetti a welcome; the two spend hours rowing around the lagoon, forging a friendship based on quiet, comradely movement on the sea.
As so often, there is an undercurrent, a darkness that is first revealed when Davide’s beehives are full of dead bees, a problem he is dealing with by sending samples of the soil, and the dead bees, for scientific scrutiny. Of course this leads elsewhere, to more heartbreaking problems than bees alone, and a wild summer storm brings with it the inevitable death. Brunetti has to go back to his vocation sooner than he intended, enlisting his Neapolitan colleague, Claudia Griffoni. Leon is very good on male friendships, with a fine sense of how they carry on without many words. This is a darker book than many she has written, and what Brunetti reveals offers no happy ending. Brunetti is a man steeped in Greek and Latin classics; he has taken several classical authors to reread during his leave. Honey and salt are precious commodities in Graeco-Roman poetry, and the book ends with bees, a vision of them returning from their hives in the lagoon, bringing back ‘pollen and nectar and transform[ing] them by the magic of bees into honey, that sweetest of all things’.
Earthly Remains is dedicated to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the long-serving US Supreme Court Associate Justice, now in her mid-eighties. Let us wish her long life, especially in the face of what’s going on in the US now.
Dolores Redondo, The Legacy of the Bones, t. Nick Caister & Lorenza Garcia, HarperCollins 2016
As a rule, I used to run a mile from the paranormal, spirits in caves, Ladies and lamia, not to mention detectives who see the dead. Maurizio Giovanni’s excellent first novel, I will have Vengeance (translated by Anne Milano Appel, Hirsilla 2012 ), put paid to that. Set in the world of opera during early fascist Italy, its haunted detective walks around his city seeing the dead as they were when murdered, keeping his distance from normal citizens. The book was shortlisted for the International Dagger. As sometimes happens, though, none of the subsequent books in the series has had the impact of the first one.
Now comes Dolores Redondo, whose first book in her Baztan Trilogy, The Invisible Guardian, translated by Isabelle Kaufeler (HarperCollins/Blue Door 15 ), was shortlisted in 2015. It’s a strange and rather wonderful book, set in an area of Spain that retains a certain mystery due in part to its being a dark valley in a large national park in which several languages (including Basque) are spoken alongside Spanish, and which still enjoys superstitions that have disappeared elsewhere. Given how many crime writers now use characters with second sight of some kind, one just has to shrug and keep reading. Early in my reading I found myself submerged in Google Maps—and, yes, this is not an imaginary place.
After all, families are families, even if occasional members have a psychic gift or, much worse, have gone over to the dark side—as we now put it. In the second novel, though, there’s more dark than light. The protagonist, Amaia Salazar, is embedded in her village and in her family; as the book opens, she is in the late stages of her first pregnancy, and still working. It is not the optimum time to find herself dealing with a series of desecrations that involve the corpses of newborns. A series of murderers kill themselves in their cells. Yet something or someone is behind them. I hesitate to say any more, because those of a non-anthropological bent may find the detail of this investigation more than they can stomach. Yet, so genuine do the events feel, that it is not difficult to keep going. When Redondo writes of a historical Inquisitor in the Baztan valley I look him up, and there’s a book on his work and his documents: Gustav Henningsen, ed., The Salazar Documents: Inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frías and Others on the Basque Witch Persecution, Leiden: Brill, (2004).
Carried over from the previous novel there are characters who make trouble, and those who cause it, such as her suspended colleague, Montes. There are difficulties for Amaia’s husband, who is not Spanish, to cope with marriage to a detective, a quiet reversal of the hard-drinking, smoking, generally asocial male detective. There is the male hierarchy, not always easy to navigate. And there is Amaia’s family, mostly women; in this novel we find out why she was not raised by her parents, but by other relations. Above all, there is her aunt Engrasi. If you like serious horror, this may be a three-book set for you; if you don’t, try toughing it out anyway.