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The crime writer and the bald

I've always been a little jealous of American author Donna Leon, who has lived in Venice for decades, writing her novels set in this unique and beautiful city. A perfect location for crime writing, of course, as it also holds a certain mystery. I know that on my only visit there I found myself lost on more than one occasion.

We are warned never to judge a book by its cover but Leon's latest novel, The Jewels Of Paradise, caught my eye as it was described on the cover as "a gripping tale of intrigue, music and obsession".

I then discovered that this book was part of a promotional tie-in project with Italian diva Cecilia Bartoli. Nothing could have prepared me for the cover image on her CD Mission, which features the mezzo-soprano as a bald priest brandishing a cross!

The album showcases the music of little-known Italian composer Agostino Steffani (1654-1728).

The soprano has been friends for many years with Donna Leon and asked the author to write a mystery novel to accompany the album.

Leon quickly became intrigued by the idea as there was so little known about this obscure baroque composer.

"We were at dinner in Zurich, about a year ago and Cecilia told me about her new disc, which is always top secret," says Leon.

They discussed the fact that Steffani was probably a spy and certainly a diplomat. He was a bishop, always out of money, who died poor and might have been a castrato.

Fans of Donna Leon will be familiar with her series of crime novels featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. With The Jewels Of Paradise, she takes a break from Brunetti and introduces Caterina Pellegrini.

A native Venetian, with a doctorate in baroque opera, Pellegrini is asked to examine documents dealing with the life of this composer to settle a question of inheritance. The novel deals with the mystery of the composer's life, as well as the people who are now concerned with the papers and objects he left behind.

"Yes, there is a little bit of me in Caterina, in that she loves the same music I do and she is very interested in the future of music," says Leon.

Leon has always been a serious fan of baroque music. Handel is her real passion, and although she doesn't play, she is the patron of the Baroque orchestra 'Il Complesso Barocco'. Both Leon and Cecilia Bartoli are certainly passionate about the future of music.

Leon also balks at the idea of listening to music while writing -- she simply can't do it. "I can't even listen to music if I am writing a letter, I can't do both," she says.

She is outraged at the way we are inundated with bad music everywhere, from buses to shops to the post office.

A clever pairing between author and soprano, that's for sure. People certainly won't forget the cover of the CD Mission in a hurry. When Donna Leon first saw it she was shocked.

"I know Cecilia and I know she goes too far very often but then I started to laugh because it's so much like her!"

Leon sees it as a very wise step that will attract the attention of people who would ordinarily be turned off by the idea of classical music.

The Jewels of Paradise by Donna Leon (Random House)

Cecilia Bartoli -- Mission -- Arias (Decca) www.deccaclassics.com

Aedín Gormley presents Movies and Musicals (Saturday 1-4pm) and Sunday Matinée (Sunday 12-2pm) on RTÉ Lyric fm

Indo Review