My favorite way to decompress is straightforward — turn off the phone, get off the Internet, and instead of reading some heavy and complex book, pick up a good old fashioned detective novel. It is even better if it is set in a faraway place — such as Italy or Japan. And this past weekend, I sat down and read the latest from one of my favorite writers.
Donna Leon’s Trace Elements is a book set in Venice, and it is the 29th book with Commissario Guido Brunetti as its main protagonist. It is a book about investigating a murder — of a human being but in a broader context about the slow killing of the planet that we inhabit. The book is really about the crimes we commit against the earth and its generosity. We all have seen the visual impact of humans taking a break — the planet starts to heal itself. We are the virus, except we are too arrogant to admit it.
Leon’s books, to me, are like a subtle wine, a fragrant yet deeply complex, leaving a lasting impression. I have read all of the Brunetti series books. Some are good. Some are great. Some, like Trace Elements, are entirely forgettable. Even though this is about the water crisis in Venice, it doesn’t really deliver the gravity of the problem.
The voluptuousness of Venice, the textures of its people, and the backdrop of a modern Italian milieu are what maker her books so particular. Trace Elements lacked that subtle complexity. The plotline was so weak that even mid-way through, I knew the answer of whodunnit. Leon tried some twists and turns, but rarely twisted and hardly turned. Leon is really good at creating complex personas and painting her characters vividly with her words. I had a tough time conjuring up the characters in my head. The book felt like a relationship gone stale – predictable and unimaginative. However, if you read the reviews from all the usual suspects in the mainstream, you will realize that I am at the exact odds with them. And that is because I have faithfully read her books since 1992, and many of the reviewers don’t have the historical context of her work.
Bottomline: skip it!