A Noble Radiance, by Donna Leon

I first started listening to this book on a long car ride, but had to switch to something else because it was putting me to sleep. Granted, I was tired to start with, but it seemed like a lot of talking with this person and that about matters not related to the crime. Later (and more rested) I found myself better able to stick with it, although still vaguely disappointed.

I think I expected more of a sense of place. I mean, Venice after all! Not that I would expect natives to rhapsodise about tourist spots, but I had hoped to understand a bit better what it is like to live there. I like the way Laura Lippman uses Baltimore almost as another character in her books. A mention or two here of the traghetto and a water-taxi didn’t quite do it for me. I was amused that I could still convert lire to dollars almost unconsciously—talk about your useless skills. In a museum in Chiusi a few years ago, I noticed they had a display of different denominations of lire notes and coins. It still seems odd that things from my lifetime are now part of history.

There were some hints of regional discrimination, organised crime and official corruption. But I wanted the feel of daily life in the city of dirt and dreams, not a civics lesson. Unfair, of course, to criticise a book for not being what I expected. I’ve mentioned before that I particularly like mysteries for their puzzle, and the puzzle here was certainly interesting.

When a long-abandoned field is plowed, some human bones are turned up along with a signet ring with the crest of the Lorenzoni family. The patriarch, Count Lorenzoni, runs a huge business with fingers in all kinds of pies. He had started with almost nothing but his fierce ambition to rebuild the family fortunes and restore the family’s honor, deeply tarnished during the war when the Count’s father betrayed the city’s Jews to the Germans.

Almost two years previous to the story, the Count’s only son, Roberto, had been kidnapped. The authorities had frozen the family’s assets, so the Count was unable to pay the ransom, and nothing more was heard of the boy. Could the body in the field be the missing Roberto? If so, who had kidnapped him and why?

Once I let go of my expectations—none of Nevada Barr’s suspenseful chases through national parks here or Ian Rankin’s devastating character development—I began to enjoy this book for what it is: a sober story with much to say about families and what can go on within them.

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