The Golden Egg by Donna Leon is the 22nd Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery set in Venice (available March 26, 2013).
My neighborhood’s long time crossing guard (whose name I don’t know) recently asked me if I knew what had happened to Helen, my neighbor of nine years; our houses are attached. I don’t know Helen’s last name. I told the crossing guard that though I had seen furniture and appliances out at the curb for garbage pickup I did not know if something had happened to Helen. The guard said she was sure if Helen had died, she would have heard about it in church. I said I would try to find out Helen’s current circumstances.
I’ll admit that on the misanthrope scale, I rate pretty high, but I should probably know more about Helen than I do. Nine years is a long time.
Forty years is a very long time. That’s about how long his neighbors in Venice knew virtually nothing about the life of Davide Cavanella, a deaf mute and apparent suicide. In Donna Leon’s disappointing The Golden Egg, Guido Brunetti, Commissario di Polizia of the city of Venice, is asked by his wife, Paola, to look into the circumstances of the death. Paola feels that someone should care that this young man lived and died. The story turns out to be not so much a mystery as a long commentary on some of the unsavory aspects of Venice. While wandering the canals of Venice with Brunetti is pleasant enough, the story is ultimately a letdown.
Brunetti begins an investigation and discovers that not only did Davide not have much of a life, he, to all intents and purposes never existed. Davide “seems, as far as officialdom was concerned, to have sprung into life only by leaving it. Before his name was written on the form that accompanied his body to the morgue at the Ospedale Civile, it had not been entered in any official register kept by the city of Venice. There was no birth certificate; the file of the Church had no registry of his baptism or first communion. He had not attended school in the city, neither the public grammar schools nor the special schools in Santa Croce for deaf children. He had never been issued a carta d’identitá; he had never been registered with the health service, nor had he ever been in hospital. He had never applied for a drivers’ licence, passport, gun permit or hunting license.”
Even stranger, the dead man’s mother speaks to the police only reluctantly and claims that her son’s identification papers were stolen in a burglary, clearly a lie as he never had any papers.
A former co worker of Davide’s mother asks Brunetti why he persists in his investigation when no crime appears to have been committed. Brunetti answers, “I want him to have lived,” and “because everything I’ve been told since he died means something different, and everyone I talk to has something to hide or that they don’t want me to know.”
Brunetti seems to read Davide’s story as a metaphor for Venice. He tells a coworker that he “never” tires of “all this beauty” that is Venice, but he knows and despairs that the city has a hidden underbelly of political intrigue, police corruption, and sordid business practices.
Brunetti wants very much to find that the silence and ignorance surrounding Davide’s death will not turn out to be a story of neighbors who did not care enough to learn the cause of one man’s suffering.
As to my neighbor, I plan to find out what happened to Helen and ask the crossing guard her name.
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