Book review: “The Golden Egg” by Donna Leon

Each new Brunetti book is an absorbing read. This one is no exception. Only during the last few pages of “The Golden Egg”, does it become clear what the title means. By then, Brunetti and the reader have been through many twists, turns, possible solutions. Yet the final one still manages to surprise.

All starts out innocently enough. Brunetti’s family share a meal and indulge in their insiders’ game: creating an absurd story using a word, a phrase, grammar, syntax. Only far into the novel, the significance of this scene becomes clear. By then it is also clear: this may be a family playing absurd games – they are a happy family.

The innocent scene is soon forgotten, when Brunetti and Paola find out about the death of someone at their dry-cleaner’s. Then the first questions start, for the commissario and his friends, and the reader. What happened? Was it really suicide?

And effortlessly, the reader becomes absorbed in this detective story. Each time, Brunetti and the reader have more clues and the mystery seems solved, the “this is what happened” is wrong. Even in the final chapters, when Brunetti has the most probable solution, he still cannot prove it. This makes it one of Donna Leon’s darker books.

Like all books in this series, it can be read at several levels. One can read it as a holiday read on the beach, in the train, wherever – as a not too taxing but excellent story. Once finished, the reader knows what happened to the golden egg: case solved.

But at another level, this book challenges readers to think hard about things. The theory used to underpin the case, for instance, is true. The examples are real and the theory is probably true for nearly all species. Something goes wrong and is not corrected in a certain space of time? You, your brain, your body will never be able to grasp it, apply it, master it.

Shocking to realise, how vulnerable development is. Shocking how much we take things for granted. Shocking, how easily the necessary pattern can be interrupted, disrupted, corrupted. No need to crack a skull: the right kind of care and you murder a soul, a being, a life.

Shocking also – again – how culpable society, acquaintances, friends, and a family can be. Culpable because no questions are asked, no actions are taken – though plenty people suspect, conclude, presume, are aware of what is going on. Culpable because it is easier to look the other way, presume but not check, demand a certain code of conduct, use non-facts and non-knowledge to draw wrong conclusions – to condone and cooperate with the blighting of lives.

Brunetti admits that he feels guilty and that this feeling is driving him on. Society, of which he and Paola and the others – including the reader – are part, has failed a vulnerable being. But as Brunetti cannot prove things, he leaves it to that same society to meet out justice.

These are just a few examples of how Donna Leon uses this book to ask serious questions. She uses all her books to force willing readers to think about present-day issues. But there are lighter touches as well. There are for instance scenes with Patta, or Brunetti thinking about his daughter’s latest crusades. All this, makes it another excellent detective novel, strongly recommended for an absorbing read.

“The Golden Egg” by Donna Leon, dedicated to Frances Fyfield, London Heinemann, 2013


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