From "the undisputed crime fiction queen" (Baltimore Sun), one of Comissario Guido Brunetti's most enigmatic cases: leading Donna Leon's iconic detective from the local dry cleaner all the way to Vienna's most elite aristocrats.
Over the years, Donna Leon's best-selling Commissario Guido Brunetti series has conquered the hearts of lovers of finely-plotted character-driven mysteries all over the world. Brunetti, both a perceptive sleuth and a principled family man, has exposed readers to Venice in all its aspects: its history, beauty, architecture, seasons, food, and social life, but also the crime and corruption that seethe below the surface of La Serenissima.
In The Golden Egg, as the first leaves of autumn begin to fall, Commissario Guido Brunetti’s wife Paola comes to him with a request. The mentally handicapped man who worked at their dry clearers has suffered a fatal sleeping pill overdose, and Paola loathes the idea that he lived and died without anyone noticing or helping him. To please her, Brunetti investigates the death and is surprised to find nothing on the man: no birth certificate, no driver’s license, no credit cards. As far as the Italian government is concerned, he never existed. And yet, there is a body. As secrets unravel, Brunetti suspects an aristocratic family might be connected to the case. But why would anyone want this sweet, simple-minded man dead?
About the Author
Date of Birth:February 28, 1942
Place of Birth:Montclair, New Jersey
Education:B.A., 1964; M.A. 1969; postgraduate work in English literature
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It was a peaceful night at the Brunetti home, and dinner progressed in harmony. Brunetti sat at his usual place, his son Raffi beside him; opposite Brunetti sat his wife, Paola, and beside her their daughter, Chiara. A plate of fritto misto to which vegetables, particularly Chiara's current favourite, carrots, had been added with a liberal hand had initiated the peaceful mood; the conversation had maintained it. School, work, a neighbour's new puppy, the first Labradoodle to be seen in Venice: the topics flowed into and from one another, and then on to yet others, all of them tied in some way to the city in which they lived.
Though they were Venetian, the conversation took place in Italian rather than in Veneziano, Brunetti and Paola having decided that the children would learn the dialect anyway from their friends and on the street. This had indeed happened, and so the children spoke Veneziano as easily as did their father, who had been raised speaking it. Paola had picked it up – and it was perhaps to her credit that it embarrassed her to confess this – from the servants who had filled her family's palazzo when she was growing up, rather than from her parents, and so she spoke it less fluently than the others. She felt no embarrassment – quite the contrary – in having achieved almost native fluency in English from her childhood nanny and was pleased that she had managed to pass the language on to both her children, though the transmission had been aided by classes with a private tutor and summer study in England.
Families, much in the manner of churches, have rituals and rules which puzzle non-members. They also place high value on things which members of other groups do not prize to the same degree. If the Brunettis had a religion, aside from a formal adherence to some of the outward, decorative manifestations of Christianity, it was language. Puns and jokes, crossword puzzles and teasers were to them what communion and confirmation were to Catholics. Bad grammar was a venial sin; deliberate corruption of meaning was mortal. The children had taken pride in reaching the stages of awareness where they, too, could partake in the progressively more serious sacraments; raised in this faith, they did not think to question its values.
Later, when the plates from which they had eaten the baked finocchio with rosemary were removed from the table, Chiara set her water glass down with a thump and said, 'They all lived happily ever after.'
'Clorinda's eyes met Giuseppe's, and together they gazed happily down at the baby,' Paola said immediately in a voice she pumped full of emotion.
Raffi looked across at his sister and mother, tilted his chin and studied a painting on the other side of the room, and then said, 'And so it was: the radical procedure left even the doctors who performed it astonished: indeed, for the first time in history, a baby had successfully been delivered from a man's body.'
It took Brunetti but a moment to say, 'As he was wheeled into the delivery room, Giuseppe had time to say, "She is nothing to me, my love. You are the only mother of my child."'
Chiara, who had listened to the contributions of the others with growing interest, added, 'Only the strongest of marriages could survive such an event, but Clorinda and Giuseppe knew a love that passed all understanding and leaped over every obstacle. Yet for a moment, Clorinda wavered. '"But with Kimberly? The friend of my heart?"'
Back to Paola, who said in the cool voice of the narrator, 'In order to preserve the rock of honesty upon which their marriage was founded, it was necessary for Giuseppe to confess the lengths to which his desire for a child had driven him. "It was meaningless, my love. I did it for us."'
'"You brute," Clorinda sobbed, "you betray me like this. What of my love? What of my honour?"' This was Raffi's second contribution, to which he added, '"And with my best friend."'
Leaping at the opening this created, Chiara broke in out of turn and said, 'He lowered his head in shame and said, "Alas, it is Kimberly's child."'
Paola banged her hand on the table to get their attention and demanded, '"But that's impossible. The doctors told us we would never have children."'
Incensed at having had his turn stolen – and by his wife – Brunetti broke in to say, doing his best to sound like a pregnant man, '"I am with child, Clorinda."'
For a moment, no one spoke as they all ran their way backwards through the dialogue and accompanying narrative to see if they fulfilled the family requirement for a story filled with cheap melodrama, cliché and outrageous characterization. When it was clear that no one had anything to add to the beginning of the story, Paola got to her feet, saying, 'There's ricotta-lemon cake for dessert.'
Later, as they sat in the living room, having coffee, Paola asked Brunetti, 'Do you remember the first time Raffi brought Sara here, and she thought we were all mad?'
'Clever girl,' Brunetti said. 'Good judge of people.'
'Oh, come on, Guido; you know she was shocked.'
'She's had years to get used to us,' Brunetti said.
'Yes, she has,' Paola said, leaning back in the sofa.
Brunetti took her empty cup and set it on the table in front of them. 'Is this grandmotherhood calling?' he inquired.
Without thinking, she reached aside and poked him in the arm. 'Don't even joke about it.'
'You don't want to be a grandmother?' he asked with feigned innocence.
'I want to be the grandmother of a baby whose parents have university degrees and jobs,' she answered, suddenly serious.
'Are those so important?' he asked, just as serious as she.
'We both have them, don't we?' she asked by way of answer.
'It is the usual custom to answer questions with answers, not with more questions,' he observed, then got up and went into the kitchen, remembering to take the two cups with him.
He came back a few minutes later, carrying two glasses and a bottle of Calvados. He sat beside her, and poured them each a glass. He handed her one and took a sip of his own.
'If they have degrees and jobs, it means they'll be older when they have children. Perhaps wiser,' Paola said.
'Were we?' Brunetti asked.
Ignoring his question, she went on. 'And, if they get a decent education, they'll know more, and that might help.'
'And the jobs?'
'They're not so important, I think. Raffi's bright, so he shouldn't have trouble finding one.'
'Bright and well-connected,' Brunetti clarified, not thinking it polite to refer directly to the wealth and power of Paola's family.
'Of course,' she said, able to admit to these things with him. 'But bright's more important.'
Brunetti, who agreed, confined himself to a nod and another sip of the Calvados. 'The last thing he told me was that he wanted to study microbiology.'
Paola considered this, then said, 'I don't even know what it is they do.' She turned to him and smiled. 'Do you ever think about that, Guido, about all those disciplines we name every day: microbiology, physics, astrophysics, mechanical engineering. We mention them, we even know people who work at them, but I wouldn't be able to tell you what it is they actually do. Would you?'
He shook his head. 'It's so different from the old ones – literature, philosophy, history, astronomy, mathematics – where it's clear what they do or at least what the material is they're working in. Historians try to figure out what happened in the past, and then they try to figure out why it happened.' He put his glass between his palms and rubbed it like a lazy Indian making fire. 'All I can figure out about microbiology is that they look at little growing things. Cells.'
'And after that?'
'God knows,' Brunetti said.
'What would you study if you had it to do all over? Law again?'
'For fun or to get a job?' he asked.
'Did you study law because you wanted to get a job?'
This time, Brunetti ignored the fact that she had answered a question with a question and said, 'No. I studied it because it interested me, and then I realized I wanted to be a policeman.'
'And if you could study just for fun?'
'Classics,' he answered without a moment's hesitation.
'And if Raffi chose that?' she asked.
Brunetti reflected on this for some time. 'I'd be happy if that's what he wanted to study. Most of our friends' kids are unemployed, no matter what degrees they have, so he might as well do it for love as for any job it might get him.'
'Where would he study?' she asked, more a mother's concern than a father's.
'Here Venice or here Italy?'
'Here Italy,' he said, not liking to have to say it, just as she didn't like to hear it.
They turned and looked at one another, forced to confront this inevitability: kids grow up and kids leave home. If the phone rang after midnight, it would no longer be possible to take it down the hall and look into their rooms to have that immediate, corporeal assurance that they were there. Asleep, awake, reading under the covers with a flashlight; unconscious, sulking, happy or angry: none of this mattered in the face of the certainty that they were safe, at home, there.
What babies parents are. All it took was that ringing sound in the night to freeze their hearts, turn their knees to jelly. It didn't matter if it turned out to be a drunken friend complaining about his wife or the Questura asking Brunetti to come in because a crime had been committed in the city and he was the man in charge. Even a call that ended with a sincere apology for having dialled a wrong number at that hour had the same battering effect on these hostages to fortune.
What the cost, then, of having one of their children in a foreign city in a foreign country? They were brave people, Guido Brunetti and Paola Falier, and they had often made fun of the streak of melodrama that ran through the centre of the Italian character, yet here they were, both of them, just one step short of pouring ashes on their heads at the thought that their son had begun his university career and might someday go off to some other city to study.
Paola suddenly leaned sideways against the arm of her husband. She placed her hand on his thigh. 'We'll never stop worrying about them, will we?' she asked.
'It wouldn't be natural if we did,' Brunetti said, smiling.
'Is that meant to comfort me?'
'Probably not,' Brunetti admitted. Time passed and then he added, 'It's the best thing about us, the worrying.'
'Us two or us humans?'
'Us humans,' Brunetti said. 'Us two, as well.' Then, because solemnity was not a dress either of them could wear for long, he added, 'If he decided to become a plumber, he could study here and continue to live at home, you know.'
She leaned forward and picked up the bottle. 'I think I'll seek solace here,' she said, pouring herself another glass.CHAPTER 2
As Brunetti walked to the Questura, he gave no thought to last night's language game and remained impervious to the crisp autumn day; his mind was taken up with less diverting matters. An email had reached him just as he was leaving his office the previous evening, telling him that his immediate superior, Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta, wanted to speak to him the following morning. In typical fashion, Patta had given no information about the topic of their meeting: Patta always liked to have the advantage of surprise, and he believed that not to reveal what he wanted to discuss would assure that. In this he failed to take into account the sense of fair play that lay deep in the heart of his secretary, Signorina Elettra Zorzi, who invariably gave a few minutes' warning to the person she conducted to her superior's office.
Brunetti had once commented on this to her, and she had replied that it was no more than telling the Christians in the Colosseo which door the lions were hiding behind.
This morning, it seemed, they were hiding behind the door to the offices of the Vigili Urbani, those unarmed officers whose job it was to see that city ordinances were obeyed. 'It's about the pavement in front of that mask shop in Campo San Barnaba,' she said after she and Brunetti had exchanged polite greetings. 'There's been a complaint from one of the other shopkeepers in the campo. They're paying taxes to put their tables outside and use the space as un plateatico, but the people in the mask shop aren't, and they insist that there's only one way that could happen.'
Brunetti often walked through the campo and knew the shop, and as he cast his memory back over the years he realized that, yes, the pavement in front had, as time passed, been increasingly covered by the amoeba-like extension of the tables on which the Made in China masks were displayed. Because this was a matter that did not concern the police, but only the vigili, Brunetti had ignored it. If paying for the vigili's blindness was cheaper than paying the tax, what merchant would not opt for it?
'But why is he concerned about something like that?' Brunetti asked, indicating Patta's door with a quick turn of his head.
'He had a phone call late yesterday afternoon; a few minutes after, he came out and asked me to send you an email.'
'Aha,' Brunetti said softly.
'Aha, indeed,' she echoed.
'About the shop?' he asked.
'I'm working on ...' she began and then effortlessly transferred to a much cooler voice to finish the sentence, 'in his office and waiting for you, Commissario.'
With Patta, Brunetti knew, there existed no lily that was not in need of gilding, and so he said, voice rich with passionate – however false – intensity, 'I saw his mail a moment ago, so I came down immediately.'
Whereupon the door to Patta's office was pushed fully open from the inside, and the Vice-Questore appeared. Brunetti often reflected that, in an opera, some sort of trumpet voluntary would sound at the appearance of this man. So handsome, so noble of bearing, so impeccably well dressed: one had no choice but to admire him, much as one would admire a well-wrought urn. Today, in acknowledgement of the approach of cooler weather, Patta wore a grey cashmere suit of such exquisite cut that, had they but known the final destination of their wool, scores of rare and endangered Kashmir goats would have fought to be the first to be shorn. The cotton of his shirt was blindingly white and served to reflect light up towards his still-tanned face.
As sometimes happened to him, Brunetti had to fight down the urge to tell Patta how beautiful he was. Conscious of how fraught his dealings with his superior already were and how prone Patta was to misinterpret what was said to him, Brunetti confined his enthusiasm to a smile and a pleasant 'Good morning, Vice-Questore.'
With every show of utter uninterest in their conversation, Signorina Elettra returned to her computer, her bearing making it evident that she found it more absorbing. She seemed to disappear, as if she actually occupied less space in the room, a tactic which Brunetti both admired and envied.
Patta turned and went back into his office, saying over his shoulder, 'Come in here.'
Brunetti's sensibilities had grown a hard callus over the years, and he was now virtually invulnerable to Patta's manner. Casual disregard, the absence of respect for anyone he considered an inferior: these things no longer caused Brunetti concern. Violence or its threat might have offended or angered him, but so long as Patta chose passive, rather than active, disrespect, Brunetti remained untroubled.
'Sit,' Patta said as he walked around his desk. As Brunetti watched, the Vice-Questore crossed his legs and then, as if remembering the crease in his trousers, immediately uncrossed them. He met his subordinate's neutral glance. 'Do you know why I want to talk to you?'
'No, sir,' Brunetti said with every evidence of ignorance.
'It's about something important,' Patta said, glancing aside after he spoke. 'The mayor's son.'
Brunetti refrained from asking how the mayor's son, whom Brunetti knew to be an untalented lawyer, could be important. Instead, he tried to look eager for the Vice-Questore's revelations. He nodded with calculated neutrality.
Again, Patta crossed his legs. 'Actually, it's a favour for his son's fiancée. The girl – young woman – owns a shop. Well, half owns a shop. She has a partner. And the partner has been doing something that might not be entirely legal.' Patta stopped, either to draw breath or to search for a way to explain to Brunetti how something not 'entirely legal' might refer to the bribery of a public official. Clam-like, Brunetti sat in his safe place and waited to see what route Patta would choose.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Golden Egg"
Copyright © 2013 Donna Leon and Diogenes Verlag AG, Zurich.
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