Thursday, May 30, 2013

Henry Scott-Irvine "Procol Harum - The Ghosts of A Whiter Shade of Pale"

There’s a delicate balance that comes with the territory when someone ventures into the realm of music biography. If you’re writing about anyone below genuine superstar status, where almost anything anyone might want to know is already out there in the public domain you’re going to need to consider the demands of three different and quite distinct audiences.

Take a group like Procol Harum, and you’ve got a perfect encapsulation of the issue.

The first sector of the audience are the casual fans, the people who, in this case, would recall A Whiter Shade of Pale, note that they liked it, had always wondered what it was about and had always wondered about the band who took it to the top of the charts back in 1967. It’s a group who’ll find Procol Harum - The Ghosts of A Whiter Shade of Pale an interesting read, since Henry Scott-Irvine covers the band’s early history back to Gary Brooker's first outfit, The Paramounts, the Southend R&B band who might have garnered high praise from the likes of The Rolling Stones and The Beatles (who they opened for) and Sandie Shaw (who they backed on tour).

The circumstances that brought about pianist and singer Gary Brooker’s songwriting partnership with lyricist Keith Reid are covered thoroughly, as is the courtroom fallout when A Whiter Shade of Pale hit the top of the charts and former members of the band jumped in for a share of the proceeds and the more recent law suit launched by organist Matthew Fisher some thirty-eight years after the event claiming a share in the copyright as a co-writer of the multimillion-selling song that continues to generate a strong stream of royalties.

The casual fan may well be surprised to learn that, between the original release of AWSoP and the court case Procol Harum released a string of fairly highly acclaimed albums (Shine on Brightly, A Salty Dog, Grand Hotel), toured extensively, produced some of the earliest (and best) rock collaborations in an orchestral setting and were a major drawcard in the United States through the seventies, though their prog rock credentials didn’t count for much when the punk rockers hit town.

One step up from the casual fan is the bloke who, much like myself, has heard the albums, has a bit of the sense of the chronology and wants to be reminded of the detail. Again, Scott-Irvine does a rather good job in that regard, carrying the narrative forward through the personnel changes, money problems that stemmed from dodgy management, legal costs and, in places, downright bad luck. They could, for example, have played Woodstock, but they’d already played a string of festivals that American summer and opted to head home instead.

By the book's end we're brought right up to the current incarnation of the band, a capable and congenial musical unit touring the world, dispelling ghosts as they go

It’s not, however, a book for the obsessive fan, the Procol Harum Trainspotting Anorak. While it’s an interesting, easy and enjoyable read there isn’t a great deal here that wasn’t either known or suspected. It’s quite possible the unknown and unsuspected only exists in minimal quantity, but there’s definitely room for a detailed album by album discussion of the contents of a significant though largely ignored or forgotten musical legacy.

One thing that does come across strongly is the deliberate modelling of the Procol Harum instrumental lineup on the dual keyboards piano/organ combination employed by Bob Dylan and The Hawks (later, of course, The Band) at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall and elsewhere on the 1966 World Tour, along with the influence of The Young Rascals.

There’s at least one intriguing side note that I, for one, would have thought was worth checking out. Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles has Procol lyricist Keith Reid turning up on the doorstep of Elektra Records’ London office (Boyd was the label’s British rep) looking for a deal based solely on some typewritten verses. I found him amiable but crazy. Who ever signed someone on the basis of a few stanzas of doggerel? (White Bicycles Kindle edition, Location 2116) and Boyd booked the band to play London’s UFO Club the evening 'A Whiter Shade of Pale' was released, which rates a mention here as the band’s live debut and has Reid mentioning the visit at the time, though there’s no earlier reference to the incident.

Trainspotting, perhaps, but it’s an intriguing incidental that I thought was worth a wry paragraph.

Equally interesting, on a similar maybe over the top but definitely intriguing note was the similarity between The Paramounts’ origins (Southend is right on the Thames estuary, and merchant seamen brought in obscure rock, R&B and blues titles unavailable in England through standard record shops) and the likes of The Beatles (Liverpool) and The Animals (Newcastle-on-Tyne). There’s a brief mention of groups of their ilk playing songs they’d discovered on imported records here, but it’s an intriguing point that might have been worth exploring further.

I’m also intrigued by a couple of passing references to the late, great Vivian Stanshall, also a native of Southend, who must have had some link with the Paramount/Procol scene apart from a co-write with Keith Reid referred to here.

But that’s nit-picking. As a reasonably detailed biography Procol Harum - The Ghosts of A Whiter Shade of Pale does everything you’d expect it to do if you’ve read a number of similar volumes, it’s reasonably detailed but with a lot skimmed over, covers all the major points but could do with a bit more depth.

There’s no doubting the depth of Scott-Irvine’s research, and the extensive list of interviewees include practically everyone who has ever been involved with Procol Harum (the notable exception being the late BJ Wilson, who died before the project started), producer Chris Thomas, Cream lyricist Pete Brown and Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page. He doesn’t skirt around the Matthew Fisher lawsuit, though it’s subject matter that’s always going to be a little more than merely contentious and the inclusion of court documents in the appendix section of the book gives the reader the opportunity to explore the matter if you’re so inclined and find the content in the book itself lacking in detail.

There’s a fairly thorough discussion of the band’s groundbreaking orchestral concerts,  Gary Brooker's solo ventures and side excursions with the likes of Eric Clapton and Bill Wyman, you get to read the long lost third verse of A Whiter Shade of Pale (not that I was much the wiser after I’d done so) and the volume sports the regulation big name contributions (Foreword by Martin Scorsese, Introduction by Sir Alan Parker and Afterword by Sebastian Faulks).

All in all, one of the better examples of in-depth rock biography for the general fan, though the old anorak may find the mileage varying.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Peter Robinson "Playing With Fire"

The reread the DCI Banks series from go to woah scheme comes rather drastically unstuck here, thanks to the British ITV series that delivered a rather heavily modified Playing With Fire and had Hughesy reaching for the bookshelves to check the intersection between the written and dramatised versions of the plot line, and I guess the same thing will be happening after I’ve iViewed the remaining episodes from the first series (Friend of The Devil and Cold is The Grave).

The actual object of the whole exercise is to keep track of the titles in an extensive series, and it had been a while since the first run through Playing With Fire. While you’d expect a few differences I wasn’t quite prepared for the major transformations in Robert Murphy’s adaptations, and they worked well enough though he’s done a couple of things that have implications for the ongoing soap opera side of things.

What hasn’t changed is the core of the case, where a deliberately lit fire in two barges moored end to end on a dead end canal ends up linked to an art fraud. The fire claims two victims, a reclusive artist and a teenage junkie, and while the modus operandi involved in the art fraud remains the same, there are significant differences between the two versions.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the ongoing shake out after the end of Banks’ affair with his offsider, DI Annie Cabbot in an environment where keeping their professional relationship viable is going to be a major issue, particularly when Annie launches herself into an involvement with a handsome art authenticator, who would appear to be a useful source when it comes to assessing what may well be forged artworks. Useful, that is, as long as Banks can contain a degree of jealousy and a suspicion that there are things about Philip Keane that don’t quite add up.

Of course, right through the police procedural genre things aren’t quite the way they seem, and sorting out the realities behind the situation is almost invariably the key to solving the case.

The squatter living on the first barge, reclusive and unsuccessful artist Tom McMahon, looks to have been the target of the arson attack. The second victim, teenaged heroin addict Tina Aspern, was estranged from her mother and stepfather so there are obvious issues there.

Her boyfriend, troubled day labourer Mark Siddons, was found near the fire scene, tried to escape but was caught and interrogated, revealing that he’d quarrelled with Tina and left her alone with her fix while he headed out for a night on the tiles which has delivered a strong alibi in the form of the Leeds University student he ended up spending the night with. Mark adds another aspect to the investigation when he suggests Tina’s addiction stems from the fact that she had been abused by her stepfather, Doctor Patrick Aspern.
He’d hoped to rescue Tina from the depths to which she had sunk, and his attempts to escape the remorse and grief associated with her death provides another narrative strand that weaves around the investigation.

Another obvious suspect comes in Andrew Hurst, the obsessive collector who reported the blaze. In his account, having noticed the flames, he rode his bicycle down to the blaze, rode back to phone the fire brigade and returned to watch them put the fire out. Fair enough, you might think, but you suspect there’s a bit of perving going on and he’s washed all his clothes by the time Banks and Cabbot arrive to interview him.
Then there’s Leslie Whitaker, owner of an antiquarian book shop who sold McMahon old books that could provide paper suitable for forged Turner watercolours, quite possibly a man with something to hide.

Suspicions are on the rise two days later when a second fire in a caravan parked in a relatively remote spot in the countryside claims the life of Roland Gardiner, a down-and-out failed business man but fails to damage a fireproof safe containing a large amount of cash and what appears to be a Turner watercolour.

There’s no doubt the fires were deliberately lit, and the modus operandi seems much the same, so the answer to the case would seem to lie in establishing the connections between the two and unearthing the identity of a third participant in the art fraud scam, who is more than likely going to turn out to be the culprit.

As Banks and Cabbot go about doing that, Mark Siddons goes on a cross country trip that spins things out a bit and there are the regulation dead ends, clues, red herrings and side issues before circumstances rather than deduction lead to the identification of the cunning and calculating villain who’s a thoroughly nasty piece of work and sedates his victims with a date rape drug before setting the fire, using a candle as the seemingly innocent timing device to start the blaze. He has also covered his tracks rather well, using a rented car to approach the scenes of the crimes and arranging the rental using the identity and, more significantly, the credit card details, of a man long since dead.

The astute reader may or may not have spotted him earlier on, but even if that’s the case the rush of action that leads up to the conclusion keeps those pages turning, almost of their own volition. It’s an ending that sets things up for a couple of new strands in the soap opera ongoing interactions side of a good, solid police procedural series where the characters work as a group with its own internal dynamic as the cases they investigate tend to involve the darker recesses of the human mind.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

John le Carré "A Delicate Truth"

I have a feeling, assuming there’s someone there with the inclination to do the writing, that when twenty-second or twenty-third century historians turn their gaze back to concepts like liberal democracy and the Westminster system of government they’ll identify the early years of the twenty-first century and the agendas some of the characters in this latest le Carré are pursuing as the era and the agency that more or less killed them off.

That’s not to suggest that liberal democracy, characterised by fair, free, and competitive elections between multiple distinct political parties, a separation of powers into different branches of government, the rule of law in everyday life as part of an open society, and the equal protection of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties, and political freedoms for all persons (Wikipedia), or the Westminster system, where the Prime Minister ... leads a Cabinet which is responsible to the lower house, ... a career public service ... impartially serves the government of the day ... The armed services are outside of politics and act on the instructions of the government and The rule of law prevails, with an independent judiciary, subject to the Constitution (source) always operated as advertised.

At the start of A Delicate Truth, Operation Wildlife, a 2008 top-secret mission involving the CIA, British special forces and American mercenaries from Ethical Outcomes, a private security operation, aims to exfiltrate an arms dealer in league with jihadist terrorists visiting the British colony of Gibraltar.

It’s a covert extraordinary rendition operation instigated, on the basis of information received, by bullying New Labour junior minister Fergus Quinn, a marooned Blairite of the new Gordon Brown era who, given the nature of the beast, can’t afford to be directly connected to it. Quinn might have little time for the Foreign Office establishment, but he needs someone there on the ground, and recruits a middle rank civil servant in his fifties, an honest-to-God Foreign Service dobbin, gives him a cover identity as statistician Paul Anderson, and packs him off to Gibraltar believing he’s doing his bit for Queen and country in the war on terror.

Once he’s on the ground there he’s confined to a hotel room, going stir crazy and unable to comprehend why he can’t get out and about. Then, when he’s finally released it’s straight onto the side of The Rock, where he meets Jeb Owens, seconded on the quiet from the British military and not entirely gruntled about being involved on the fringe of what is, basically, a mercenary operation.

Things don’t run the way they’re supposed to, the Foreign Office dude, who’s not quite the  eyes and ears and, significantly, not allowed to deliver a  yea or nay and the military bloke smell a rat, advise against continuing the operation, get overruled by Quinn, and once things are over Paul is told everything went off without a hitch, bundled onto a homebound flight and transformed back into British diplomat Christopher (Kit) Probyn.

The reward for his service comes with an appointment as High Commissioner to a couple of Caribbean states, a knighthood and the wherewithal to fund an idyllic retirement in North Cornwall. Sir Kit attends the annual fayre at his Cornish village, presides over the proceedings as the lord of misrule and unexpectedly comes across Jeb Owens, the Special Forces leader seconded to Operation Wildlife. He’s ended up in Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome territory after an operation that, rather than the unqualified success Probyn had been led to believe, turns out to have been an utter cock-up in which an innocent Muslim mother and child were killed.

Probyn, by nature, wouldn’t be the most committed of whistleblowers, but the manner in which Jeb Owens makes him aware of the utter cock-up, a note purporting to be a receipt for a purchased handbag (Owens has become an itinerant leather worker) found by Probyn’s wife (on the mend from major health issues, so she needs to be reassured) and the involvement of their daughter Emily, a doctor in an East End hospital means he’s going to be kept on task.

When Probyn starts probing the issues he runs across conscientious Foreign and Commonwealth Office idealist Toby Bell, who served as private secretary to Fergus Quinn in the lead up to Operation Wildlife. Toby is out to make a difference ... in a post-­imperial, post-cold-war world and becomes increasingly suspicious of Quinn’s dealings with US private intelligence firm Ethical Outcomes, initially through dodgy former British spook Jay Crispin (Third son of a posh Anglo-American family. Best schools. Sandhurst at second attempt. Ten years of bad soldiering. Retirement at forty. We're told voluntary, but one doubts it. Bit of City. Dumped. Bit of spying. Dumped. Sidles up alongside our burgeoning terror industry. Rightly observes that defence contractors are on a roll. Smells the money. Goes for it. Hullo, Ethical Outcomes) though the dealings go all the way up to Mrs. Spencer Hardy of Houston, Texas, better known to the world’s elite as the one and only Miss Maisie.

Toby realizes his minister is hiding something important from him, begins to dig until he uncovers the details and gains the vital evidence by recording a secret meeting on the Cold War era reel-to-reel tape recorder no one thought to remove from the desk he occupies. Sticklers and hair-splitters would no doubt carp about the fact that the ancient device works faultlessly after all these years, but one suspects it was a rather expensive top of the range model that could well have received a biennial service for much of its existence.

Armed with the evidence, Toby goes to diplomat Giles Oakley, who’d been, up to this point, his guardian angel and was largely responsible for Bell’s landing the job in the first place. For his trouble he finds himself suddenly transferred to Beirut while Fergus Quinn suddenly exits the world of politics.

Now, three years later Bell, who le Carré sees as the striving ambitious fellow I fancy myself to have been at much the same age, until I went and messed everything up by writing The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, is back in London, having served his penance, and happens to be writing a novel. There’s also a bit more than a dash of the author in Probyn, apart from the fact that both author and protagonist live in rural Cornwall.

The problem for the would-be whistleblowers, of course, is that by trying to lift the lid on the details of a botched operation and bring its authors into the spotlight they’re meddling in matters that a secret state that relies on plausible deniability and subcontracts out its dirty work to maintain that deniability would prefer to leave under the carpet, so we’re headed straight into classic conspiracy thriller territory, as the meagre forces of good and righteousness race to assemble evidence before they can be silenced, which leads to the inevitable climax.

The sirens multiplied and acquired a more emphatic, bullying tone. At first they seemed to be approaching from one direction only. But as the chorus grew to a howl, and the car brakes screamed in the street outside, Toby couldn’t be certain any more - nobody could be certain, even Emily - which direction they were coming from.

That’s the final paragraph, and you might regard quoting it as verging on spoiler territory, but you knew (or at least I can claim that I did) that it was always going to end in tears. Like most of the key events in the plot line, the consequences are kept offstage, which only adds to the underlying menace that lies behind the seemingly affable old-boy mentality that appears to operate among the upper echelons of Her Majesty's Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

That’s familiar territory for long term le Carré fans, but the ground rules and the goal posts, in the wake of 9/11, the Iraq War and the Global War on Terror, have been moved. While the likes of Giles Oakley have been there all along, they’re smart operators who can read the changes in the wind and are all too willing to climb aboard the neo-con bandwagon. That means, despite the traditions associated with their own armed forces they’ll go along with the outsourcing of sensitive matters like Operation Wildfire to private contractors in it for the money.

As le Carre puts it here, It’s so much easier if I come to you and say, ‘Here’s the contract, I want you to liberate Sierra Leone, I don’t give a toss who you take with you and try to keep the killing down.’

Or, in the words of Fergus Quinn as early as Page 23 of the iBooks eText: Private defence contractors… Where’ve you been? Name of the game these days. War's gone corporate, in case you haven't noticed. Standing professional armies are a bust. Top-heavy, under-equipped, one brigadier for every dozen boots on the ground, and cost a mint. 

So, as the lines between public and private interests become blurred there’s an ever-expanding circle of non-governmental insiders from banking, industry and commerce who were cleared for highly classified information denied to large swathes of Whitehall and Westminster (p. 414), all of whom have a vested interest in ensuring there’s no one out there asking difficult or embarrassing questions.

That’s not to suggest that Le Carré’s Deep State, the inner core of the establishment, enjoys a monopoly on shortsightedness, hypocrisy, lies and unfettered greed, and it’s not as if a ruthless determination to protect their own self interest is a recent development.

You can see le Carré’s pursuit of hypocrisy, cant and double-dealing among the political and administrative elite as a theme running through all his work, but faced with recent developments on the world stage, as le Carré put it in an essay in last month’s issue of Harper’s, How far can we go in the rightful defence of our Western values without abandoning them along the way?

And that, of course, is what A Delicate Truth is all about.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Stephen Booth "Dead and Buried"

Long term readers probably suspected it all along, but there’s a rather interesting little piece here where author Stephen Booth recounts his introduction to the key characters in a series that has run out to twelve titles with a thirteenth out in June.

It as, it seems, a quite deliberate plan, though the two characters Ben Cooper and Diane Fry, were, in Booth’s explanation seen from a distance, with a few basic impressions and subsequently, one imagines, Booth had room to move and twist things around as their true personalities emerged through the series.

He had his setting in Derbyshire’s Peak District, wanted to avoid another Rebus or similarly old, embittered world-weary, middle-aged detective inspector, so the two characters needed to be young and junior ... on the bottom rung of the ladder in CID. Given the location he wanted them to have differing points of view, and, by extension, different ambitions, though he figured a little role reversal was in order. Given the need for one to be local, the other an outsider, one sensitive and the other hard-nosed, one ambitious and the other less aspirational a bit of gender role reversal had Cooper as the sensitive, happy to stay where he was brought up local and Fry as the hard-nosed ambitious outsider.

It’s a combination that worked well enough to have the Booth titles move from grab the next one when it hits the shelves in the local library to chase down the next title once you’re aware that it’s out there.

After eleven titles there’s a fair bit of development from that original glimpse, and by Dead and Buried Diane Fry’s on the way up the promotion ladder having worked her way up to Detective Inspector in the Major Crimes Unit, with Detective Sergeant Cooper happily about to settle down in the old familiar location, in the process of setting out the arrangements for his wedding.

Crime scene officer Liz Petty seems almost totally focussed on her big day, and Cooper’s finding the whole thing a distraction as he sets about dealing with two seemingly unrelated cases as the Peak District of England goes up in flames as wildfires, probably caused by arson, spread across the moors. They’re the worst seen in the area in decades, and the fire crews are flat out.

Firemen fighting one such outbreak sight signs of a break in at an abandoned and not quite derelict pub, Cooper heads out to investigate. The Light House, located on an out of the way moorland road, closed its doors two years before and turns out to be the key to the whole thing, but Ben’s not quite inside when he’s alerted to what seems to be a much more significant discovery.

Fire fighters report finding a buried rucksack and a leather wallet out on the moorland, and since there’s a not quite cold case involving the disappearance of David and Trisha Pearson, a couple of tourists reported missing two years previously who seem to have disappeared without trace in the middle of a snowstorm. At the time they vanished there had been some controversy, with allegations of financial improprieties that may have prompted a staged disappearance.

Under the circumstances this seems much more important than investigating a reported break in.

Which, of course, is what Cooper should have done since the reader already knows there’s a body in there (thanks to the opening sequence). The possible link to the missing couple brings the Major Crimes Unit into the picture and, predictably, the body we knew was there is found by Diane Fry, providing ample excuses for her to start heaping grief on her former colleagues.  There are some major issues in Fry’s past, as the long term reader is well aware, but, really, she seems to be turning into a genuine, dyed in the wool B with a capital itch. as far as she’s concerned she’s finished with her former colleagues in the Peak District, has definitely moved on with an eye to the future and is going to resent any circumstance that might drag her back.

So while she’s sniping at the former colleagues some of them, most notably the close to retirement and therefore increasingly disinclined to worry about upsetting his superiors old-school copper, Gavin Murfin, are sniping right back.

As the investigation starts to focus on the now derelict Light House we meet former landlord Maurice Wharton, whose stock in trade involved insulting his customers, and is now facing terminal illness.  The two strands, inevitably, wind up intertwined and are brought together in an unexpected and harrowing climax that opens a number of soap opera possibilities for the next instalment, Already Dead, due to hit the market in June.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Donna Leon "The Golden Egg"

I read Wasting no more words on her Brunetti left the hospital to go and get the boat to the Lido to go for a walk on the beach, turned the page and came to the regulation copyright notice one finds at the ends of certain brands of e-book. “Hang on,” I thought, “there’s something missing here.”

A reread of the final couple of pages, however, revealed Donna Leon had nothing more to say on Commissario Brunetti’s investigation into the death of Davide Cavanella, a deaf and mentally disabled man who worked in Brunetti’s neighbourhood dry cleaner because, basically, there was nothing more to say. Another author might have been tempted to moralise or comment, but with the mystery explained the rather matter of fact Brunetti is off for a walk on the beach.

Not that his stroll is likely to be particularly enjoyable. The story starts with the first leaves of autumn beginning to fall, and the investigation doesn’t take that long, but an autumnal, a cold, wet Venice, with the architecture shrouded in grey sheeting mizzle is probably the right setting for Brunetti to brood over the depressing details of what he’d found.

A lesser author would take the reader out to the Lido, deliver the protagonist’s melancholy meditations and belabour the moralisations. Readers who’ve been aboard for a while, however, will have a fair idea of the trend Brunetti’s thoughts would have taken and a definite opinion about what he’d have gone on to do afterwards.

That, of course, is probably either what he’d done once he’d taken the initial steps that needed to be taken after the latest self-serving directive from Vice Questore Patta (asked Vianello if he’d like to come for a coffee) or, if the time was right, head home for lunch or dinner with his wife and family, drink a little wine and possibly read a little Tacitus.

Patta’s request involves Brunetti looking into a seemingly minor violation of the public vending regulations committed by the business partner of the mayor’s future daughter-in-law. It’s an election year, Patta’s out to avoid any hint of a scandal and Brunetti, while he has no desire to help Patta consolidate his political connections, has no choice but to follow the directive, which is, basically, to find out if the vigili involved are trustworthy.

The vigili urbani, for those who mightn’t be quite up with the terminology, are the unarmed officers whose job it was to see that city ordinances were obeyed. In this instance they seem to be ignoring the tables set up outside a shop in Campo San Barnaba that sells masks, next to the one with the expensive cheese (Brunetti lives nearby and knows the area fairly well) and it’s possible the proprietors of the mask shop don’t have all the permits to use that space. A petty matter, but where Patta’s concerned, par for the course.

Brunetti delivers the task of making a discreet inquiry to a junior officer before heading off with his right hand man for a coffee, learning, along the way that Vianello’s concerned about the ecological implications of his wife’s proposed holiday in the Seychelles. A farm stay hotel in Umbria’s more his style.

Brunetti passes through Patta’s antechamber to compare notes with an increasingly subversive Signorina Elettra (Why do we tolerate this ... and not go after them with clubs?) on the way back, and arrives in his office to find the phone ringing. It’s his wife, Paola, informing him of the death of the boy who doesn’t talk at the dry cleaner’s.

Although he was actually aged over forty, a deaf mute with the intellectual age of a child, as far as the neighbourhood was concerned he was the boy who helped out at the dry cleaner’s, and nobody knew his name or anything much about him. He seems to have died as the result of an accidental overdose of his mother's sleeping pills, having presumably swallowed a handful because they looked like candy. Paola can’t help being distraught at the thought that he lived a joyless life and died without anyone noticing him, helping him or understanding his situation.

But when Brunetti starts making a few inquiries about Davide Cavanella a number of intriguing issues raise their heads, centred around the question of how a man in his forties could have passed through several decades without leaving anything in the way of a paper trail. There’s no birth or baptismal certificate, no passport, no driver’s license, no credit cards and he never seems to have visited a doctor or been enrolled in the school system. In short, there’s nothing that might serve to verify that he actually existed.

That’s strange, because given the obvious disability issues, both he and his mother would have been entitled to financial support from government programs designed to help the disabled, and in a country where unethical claims for state assistance are rife, he’s a disabled person for whom no claims were ever lodged.

According to Ana Cavanella, who doesn’t want to discuss the death at all, her son’s papers were stolen years ago, and it’s obvious there’s much more to the story than she is letting on. There’s an extra complication since she lives in a working-class neighbourhood where the state is the enemy, and when the police come around asking questions the neighbours become as deaf and mute as the subject of the inquiries.

As the clues start to stack up, Brunetti comes to believe the death may not have been an accident and suspects the wealthy Lembo family, aristocratic copper magnates who employed Ana Cavanella for many years and Brunetti gradually draws out the information he needs to form the full picture of Davide Cavanella’s existence.

Along the way, of course, he has this other issue with Patta’s request, and there’s also a move afoot to remove Signorina Elettra from her current office and install Patta’s loathsome offsider Lieutenant Scarpa as his official receptionist. That won’t do at all, and Brunetti manages to find a means to prevent it.

But the main issue is the Cavanella case, and while Brunetti might have embarked on the inquiry expecting to find nothing suspicious, what he stumbles across instead is chilling, calculating and deeply disturbing.

Disturbing enough to have Brunetti, once he’s sorted things out in his own mind (there’s nothing much he can do in any official sense) setting out for a brooding walk along a wind and rain swept Lido.

The Golden Egg might seem to be a relatively low-key affair for much of the story, but there’s a sting in the tail and along the way the reader comes across all the elements we’ve come to expect in a Donna Leon story. Brunetti’s family and colleagues go about their business, providing the opportunity for evocative references to Venetian history and architecture, moody ruminations on Italian politics and society, and the regulation descriptions of the city’s food, weather and social life.

It’s Number Twenty-two in the series, and shows an author who doesn’t seem to be running out of steam. Remarkably, given the longevity of the series, for my money it’s getting better.