BOOK REVIEW: Briefly noted – Earthly Remains by Donna Leon – June 2022

Reviewed by Jane Tompkins

   As the New York Times critic Marilyn Stasio has said: “Donna Leon can do no wrong . . .  [Earthly Remains] is one of her best.” It might even be the best, so don’t miss it, as I did, when it first came out (the first American paperback edition was in 2018). I found it recently in the great mystery bookstore on Sanibel Island where I’ve been staying, and I have to say, it gave me some of the most delicious moments of my reading life. As you settle back to open it to the first page, you will experience the exquisite happiness of knowing that for several hours to come you will be in the hands of one of the most skilled mystery writers alive today.

Earthly Remains introduces us to a world. Not Venice, not exactly. The action takes place in the vast laguna adjacent to the beautiful city, an expanse of tidal waters that, like the city itself, is threaded by canals, but where the land appears and disappears twice daily. There her protagonist, Commissario Guido Brunetti, has gone to a villa on the island of Sant’Erasmo to spend two weeks away from it all. Leon takes you there at a leisurely pace, and proceeds to describe the Commissario’s daily activity with equal deliberation, as befits the description of a vacation designed to replace his usual routine of fighting a losing battle against crime with healthy exercise, restful vistas, and blessed seclusion. She establishes the pace and atmosphere with her usual observational precision and finesse, coddling Brunetti and us until she is almost a third of the way through the manuscript before the ax falls.

The story that unfolds from that point is tragic. I am not going to tell it. But it foregrounds Leon’s concern with political corruption, economic greed, and industrial pollution in a way that will make your heart break, creating a tableau of suffering, cruelty, mendacity, and corruption, entwined with scenes of family and friendship, that reprise the major motifs of her work. Take my advice. Beg, borrow, or steal this book and treat yourself to your own well-deserved vacation. You won’t be disappointed. ~

Earthly Remains: Donna Leon (A Commissario Brunetti Mystery)