For Donna Leon, who’s best known for her Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery series, The Jewels of Paradise represents a new direction in her writing, in at least two ways. For one, although it’s set in her beloved city of Venice, it’s her first standalone novel. And for another, it has a female, amateur sleuth protagonist.
Native Venetian Caterina Pellegrini, who has devoted her life to the study of baroque opera, feels her doctorate in the field is wasted by working as a low-level researcher in Manchester, England. She jumps at the opportunity to return to Venice when it presents itself in the form of a peculiar job offer: Two cousins, heirs of an obscure baroque composer, each claim to have inherited the contents of the composer’s locked trunks, which are believed to contain the composer’s papers. Caterina’s job is to open the trunks and look for evidence of the composer’s intent with regard to whom he intended to bequeath his worldly goods.
As Caterina delves into the research, she unearths information about the composer that suggests that he suffered a tragic life. Furthermore, her historical research uncovers a complex plot within a plot, involving murder, infidelity, and greed, with occasional vague references to “jewels of paradise.” Given the strange manner in which she was hired and that the cousins are only interested in money, Caterina comes to realize that there may be more than just papers within the trunks. She finds herself caught in a situation in which she can’t be sure whom to trust. So, Caterina turns to her family and learns that work can't replace family and friends.
As always, Leon describes Venice in scenes that capture the city in rich detail, such as the sunset behind the domes of the Basilica, boat rides down the Grand Canal, and hurried walks through the darkened calles of Venice at night. The Jewels of Paradise is a suspenseful story that resonates with the theme of how greed can lead people astray from the real beauty of life.