The Jewels of Paradise is the first stand-alone novel from best-selling serial mystery novelist Donna Leon. The novelís protagonist, Caterina Pellegrini, is a researcher and professor specializing in Baroque opera who leaves her job in Manchester, England, for a mysterious and unusual research position in her native Venice with a foundation she has never even heard of.
From the start, it seems rather far-fetched that a professor would leave a secure position for an uncertain future (this issue is dealt with rather too conveniently at the end of the novel). Additionally, Caterina doesnít bother to read the foundationís contract before she signs it, only to find out later that the project she signed on for will last no more than a month. What happened to a researcherís attention to detail?
Caterinaís research project involves two Venetian men who each claim inheritance to the contents of two 300-year-old trunks believed to contain the papers of obscure Baroque composer Agostino Steffani (an actual 17th to 18th-century composer). It is Caterinaís job to sort through the trunksí contents and determine who should inherit. Steffani died childless, and the two men are descendants of his cousins.
As she examines the contents of both trunks and conducts research at the library, Caterina gets sucked into Steffaniís world of religious and political intrigue. She uncovers evidence that he may have been involved in the disappearance of a count who was having an affair with a married princess. Caterina also experiences some intrigue of her own: a mysterious man follows her around Venice one night, and she suspects that someone from the foundation is hacking into her email account.
Ultimately, Caterina finishes the project with surprising results. The titular Jewels of Paradise, which are found in one of the trunks, are not what one would assume, but the issue of inheritance is finally laid to rest in a rather anti-climactic fashion.
Despite the interesting plot idea, the novel has a lot of weaknesses. Italian words and phrases are generously sprinkled throughout the text with no context or explanation of what they mean. While the setting is Venice, there is not enough visual detail of Caterinaís surroundings to engage the reader. Pointless descriptions are given of things that have no relevance to the plot, such as the spam emails that Caterina finds in her inbox. In the end, the plot just didnít have enough intrigue to hold my interest.