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Originally published September 29, 2012 at 5:02 AM | Page modified September 29, 2012 at 3:06 PM

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Donna Leon's 'The Jewels of Paradise': A Venetian mystery

Book review: Donna Leon, author of the Commisario Guido Brunetti mysteries, has published a stand-alone novel, "The Jewels of Paradise," the story of a musicologist hired to investigate the contents of two antique trunks that belonged to an Italian Baroque composer.

Special to The SeattleTimes

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'The Jewels of Paradise'

by Donna Leon

Atlantic Monthly Press, 244 pp., $25

Imagine applying for a job in Venice where you'll open two trunks sealed since 1728 and study their contents, which might contain treasure. That enticing premise is exactly what American Donna Leon, who's lived in Venice for decades, explores in "The Jewels of Paradise." This best-selling author of the Guido Brunetti series has jumped ship to indulge her passion for opera with a musically-based mystery starring Caterina Pelligrini, a musicologist and native Venetian who quits a dreary job in England to return home to attend the opening of the trunks.

After about 60 pages of setup, the trunks, believed to contain the papers of an Italian composer, are finally opened. The project isn't pure research. Rather, it's a hunt to identify whether the owner, Agostino Steffani, who died without heirs and intestate, left anything behind that would settle who has rights to the contents. Two cousins, tightwads who might have sprung from a Shakespeare play, each claim they should inherit; Pelligrini's unenviable task is to arbitrate.

Knowing her subject and setting well, Leon puts Pelligrini through her paces. There are research trips to the Biblioteca Marciana, a sort of Library of Congress for books printed in Venice, whose riches reveal ancient intrigues, convoluted liaisons, and even murder.

Readers who share Leon's love of baroque opera and its history might find this tangled tale interesting. To my surprise, I grew bored. Pelligrini is judgmental and superior, a snob with no life of her own. She turns off the lights in her apartment to peep at a family across the way, whom she belittles. She has no friends.

A character needn't be likable to be engaging. Many villains have carried a story well. But Leon may have spoiled her readers. I miss good-natured Guido Brunetti and his quirky co-workers, his intelligent wife, the marvelous food, the beautiful sights.

Bring back Brunetti. No encore for Pelligrini.

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