Leon, Donna. The Jewels of Paradise. New York: Grove/Atlantic, 2012.
I’ve put these two books together because they are both mysteries set in Italy. Such a link is, however, more than somewhat arbitrary since The Wolves of St. Peter’s is set when Michelangelo is painting the Sistine chapel in Rome and The Jewels of Paradise is set in contemporary Venice.
I’m not sure that either work transcends the classification of genre fiction. Francesco, the main character of Wolves is sympathetic. A young lawyer from Florence who dared to fall in love with his employer’s wife, he has, as punishment and to avoid the wrath of his former employer, been sent by his father to work as Michelangelo’s house servant in Rome. Francesco inhabits a world of artistic rivalry, clerical corruption, high class prostitution, child trafficking, and murder. The novel begins with Francesco’s observing the body of a prostitute being removed from the Tiber. He does ultimately discover why she was murdered and by whom, and the novel ends somewhat satisfactorily. The title is intentionally ambiguous, of course, referring initially to the packs of wolves that howled on the outskirts of Pope Julius II’s Rome. The other wolves have infinitely more human faces and are way more dangerous.
The Jewels of Paradise is Donna Leon’s first book not to feature Commissario Guido Brunetti. Instead, we follow Caterina Pellegrini, a musicologist escaping the perceived dreariness of teaching undergraduates in Manchester and returning to her native Venice to examine documents relating to a Venetian composer whose descendants are squabbling over their possible inheritance. Mysteries and deceptions, both contemporary and historical, there are aplenty in this novel, but, overall, I didn’t really find them compelling. Leon certainly captures the challenges and joys of academic research, and I concur with her heroine’s celebration of the pleasure to be derived from an old-fashioned card catalogue. Caterini Pellegrini is a sympathetic protagonist. I also appreciated the ending of the novel, which leaves at least this reader with a wry sense of satisfaction. However, if my reading of this book had been interrupted, I would not have been disturbed. In other words, it wasn’t necessarily “a page turner,” and I rather demand that plot-driven mysteries be “page turners.” I want to feel that I can’t put the book down until I know what happens. In this case, I was interested but not compelled.
Perhaps, too, I was becoming a little tired of my lighter reading diet and wanting to return to the other book that I am reading (Norman Davies” Vanished Kingdoms), which, although eight hundred pages or more long including nearly forty dense pages of end-notes, is utterly compelling, but more on that later.