Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Donna Leon's Civilized Detective

Sandra Parshall

Everyone who leaves a comment today will have a chance to win new Penguin editions of several Donna Leon novels.


Two or three years ago I decided to read more mysteries by non-American authors. One of the first “exotic” writers I tried was Donna Leon.

Yes, I know – she’s American. I know that now, but when I started reading her I thought she was Italian, and nothing in the text tipped me off. Leon has lived in Venice for two decades, and she has absorbed the culture so thoroughly that her 18 Guido Brunetti novels (the 19th, A Question of Belief, will be out in May) are pitch-perfect in their portrayal of Italians and their society. She has a legion of fans all over the world – except in the country where her books are set, because she will not allow them to be translated into Italian. She prefers to live anonymously in the city that inspires her crime stories.

In many ways, Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti is the antithesis of the modern fictional cop. He may be melancholic and cynical, but Brunetti doesn’t wallow in depression the way Kurt Wallander does. Although he’s frustrated by official corruption and his boss’s stupidity, it’s hard to imagine him hurling a computer or chair through an office window the way Harry Bosch might. He doesn’t rough up suspects, although he does nothing to stop a pimp accused of beating two 11-year-old prostitutes from being questioned by a couple of angry detectives with young daughters. His job is to bring the guilty to justice, but like many Italians he is never surprised when criminals elude punishment.

Brunetti’s saving grace is his fulfilling personal life. No divorce, no bitter ex-wife or incorrigible children. Brunetti is happily wed to the intelligent, articulate Paola, a university professor with an aristocratic heritage and leftist leanings, a talent for gourmet cooking and a steadfast love for her husband. Their offspring are normal kids. Whatever may happen on the job, Brunetti will always go home to his family’s open arms and a satisfying meal. He enjoys reading and visiting museums.

Brunetti has what his creator calls a “love-irritation” relationship with Venice that reflects Leon’s own feelings about her adopted home. Unlike some American authors who set their books abroad but live in the US, Leon is a true ex-patriate. She settled in Venice more than 25 years ago after teaching English literature in the United States, Iran, China, and Saudi Arabia. Her first mystery, Death at La Fenice, resulted from a joking conversation with a friend in the opera about a musical director who inspired homicidal thoughts. Leon tries to avoid the parts of Venice that are clogged by 150,000 tourists every day. She lives among the ordinary Venetians who make up Brunetti’s world, and she writes about the social problems and political corruption that affect them.

Leon has become an internationally bestselling author -- whose novels have inspired both a cookbook and a guidebook -- without any of the blatant self-promotion that many writers consider essential. You won’t find her chatting all over the internet (although she has a Facebook fan page, it hasn’t been updated in more than a year). She doesn’t blog relentlessly about the boring details of her daily life. Her official websites are maintained by her UK and US publishers. She doesn’t turn up at every mystery conference. She has reviewed crime fiction for the London Sunday Times and started an opera company, but for the most part, she lives quietly in Venice, spends her time writing wonderful books, and lets the world come to her.

If you haven’t discovered Leon’s books yet, or you’d like to catch up on some you’ve missed, leave a comment and you’ll be entered in a drawing for several new Penguin trade paperbacks.

33 comments:

Paul Lamb said...

She has a refreshingly non-commercial approach to the craft. More steak than sizzle, as they say.

Peg said...

I LOVE her books. There was a time when they weren't being published in this country. I am so happy that we caught on to what others already knew--she's a brilliant writer!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

She's so good that readers wouldn't quit when American publishers were ignoring her. I bought the books in expensive UK editions, as did many others, rather than miss reading them. She did tour in America a couple of years back. I heard her give a brilliant analysis of the Italian garbage problem at a B&N in New York--and saw how beautifully she wove that information into a novel when I read About Face.

Laura DiSilverio said...

I've read some of her earlier books, but it's been a while. I need to pick up another one. It's funny how one can lose sight of an enjoyable series, how it just falls off your radar somehow.

signlady217 said...

Her work sounds intriguing. She's definitely on the TBR list now!

Sandra Parshall said...

I'm glad Penguin has brought out her backlist in trade paperback. They're beautifully produced books and their availability should win her more fans in the US.

BTW, German TV has filmed most of her books. I don't suppose there's any hope we'll ever see them here.

Heidi said...

Venice is one of my favorite haunts, and I discovered Donna Leon years before I started writing seriously. She makes it seem so easy, her writing flows. Her blending of cozy family life with crime is a joy to read.

Carol-Lynn Rossel said...

I'm rather fond of her work. It's classy.

Kathy said...

Classy--that's the word.

G.M. Malliet said...

I can't resist entering, hope it's ok ... we're headed for Italy soon, so this counts as research. ;-)

Margot Kinberg said...

Donna Leon is, indeed, a classy, wonderful writer who evokes such a wonderful sense of place! I am *so* excited to enter this competition; I'm a fan!

Michele said...

I enjoyed the couple I've read -- I need to get back to her series. Interesting that she doesn't want her books translated into Italian.

For some unknown reason, she's
linked in my mind with an author I've never read but always intended to, Magdalen Nabb. (Death of an Englishman is one that was recommended to me).

Helen Kiker said...

Lately I have been reading more books set in other countries so would be interested in one about Venice (which I have never visited - in fact have never been in Italy).

Venus de Hilo said...

I've read a couple of Donna L's books, enjoyed them immensely. I'm blessed to live in Hawaii, but it's a long (expensive!) trip to anywhere else in the world, and Italy seems very exotic and impossibly far away. I'd love to win an armchair journey.

BBibel said...

I love these books. I had the pleassure of meeting Ms. Leon at an Amereican Library Assoication conference in D.C. a few years ago. When she learned that I live in Berkeley, CA, she told me taht she was involved in the early music festival that happens there every two years. We found another comon interest.

Mary Ann Corrigan said...

The German TV versions of Donna Leon's books were televised a few years ago on MHz network’s International Mystery show. Commissario Brunetti was just as you would imagine him from reading the novels—except he spoke flawless German as did the other Italian policemen.

International Mystery features crime shows from various countries with English subtitles. In the DC area, where MHz is on Comcast, Verizon, Dish, and other networks, the show is on 9 PM Sunday and Tuesday. To see a list of MHz stations across the country, go to: http://www.mhznetworks.org and select the link for "MHz channels in the US"

In a given month, you might see a French Inspector Maigret story, a German Tatort episode filmed in Cologne, an Italian police show like Inspector Montalbano in Sicily, and “something else,” recently the Swedish Wallander and a Finnish series. What I really enjoy about this program is the chance to compare how the police investigate in different ways in different cultures.

Maybe we can all lobby MHz for the return of Commissario Brunetti!

Philip said...

I have an A+ List of crime fiction authors, those to whom I am devoted as to old friends, those whose next works I look out for assiduously. Leon is very special, and it intrigues me that she will not allow her books to be translated into Italian, not because of the critical aspects of her view of Venice and Italy in general, but as a matter of respect, though I am not sure precisely what she has in mind in that regard. Anyway, she is quite wonderful. A CWA Diamond Dagger would not be amiss.

Mike and Liz said...

Credible and interesting characters her books are far more than simply entertaining crime novels exploring as they do human relationships,political and commercial corruption all against the background of a very real Venice world.One of todays great fiction writers
Mike Allen

Mack said...

I just finished The Bellini card by Jason Goodwin and it has created an interest in Venice as a location for mysteries. Now I want something contemporary and your blog has convinced me that I need to read this author. Thanks.

Sandra Parshall said...

Mary Ann, thanks for pointing out Mhz. We're on Cox Cable in Fairfax County, and I think we do get that network. There are probably a lot of good things on cable that I haven't discovered yet.

Kay said...

This is an author that I have been meaning to read for years. I will soon I'm sure. Her detective appeals to me and the fact that he has a stable home life also is good. Thanks for the info and I'l love to enter to win the books.

Karen Olson said...

I've never read any of her books, but I love Venice so much that I set my tattoo shop mysteries at the Venetian in Vegas!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

When I heard Leon speak, she explained very clearly why she won't let the books be translated into Italian. She wants to remain anonymous in her neighborhood and just be "the American lady next door" (not her exact words, which I've forgotten, but that's the gist of it). She never pulls her punches when she writes about Italian corruption, which results in Brunetti always solving the mystery but justice almost never being done. While she doesn't say so, I'd guess she has more freedom to do that if the Italians aren't reading her books.

Marina McIntire said...

"...and started an opera company."???
Just like that? Wow! Where is it? What do they do?
Can't wait to get my hands on that cookbook.
Marina McIntire in Eugene, OR

Carole Sojka said...

Donna Leon is one of my very favorite mystery writers. Guido Brunetti understands that justice cannot always be done completely, but usually he manages to get some satisfactory resolution of the crime in a world filled with greed and corruption. His wife is a delight, and there is an obvious love between them and for their children. I didn't know about the cookbook, and will try to get a copy.

Pat R. said...

I haven't read her books but I've read a lot about her books. I have Friends in High Places in my TBR pile.

Loved the interview.

pennyt said...

I'm a big mystery fan, but somehow missed Donna's books. I love the description "classy" and will add her name to my books to look for list. I didn't realize her books were so hard to find, so I'm glad Penguin finally saw the light and is releasing them.
pennyt@hotmail.com

Martha said...

I love her books too! Today I was just thinking how much I love getting to view cultures apart from my own via well written mysteries. Leon does a great job of taking us into Venice. I'm looking forward to my next "visit" in May!

Heidi Noroozy said...

I discovered her while living in Germany, where I could get her books in German and English. I was disappointed on returning to the U.S. to find I couldn't get them here in any language, except as imports. I'm glad she's being published again here. Brunetti is a wonderful detective.

Kari Wainwright said...

One of my favorite experiences reading her books was doing so while I was on my dream trip in Italy.

shirley said...

I have heard her mentioned but with so many books to read, hadn't got to hers yet. That's got to change! They sound wonderful, and with so many, should keep me in reading material for some time.

kathy d. said...

I love Donna Leon's books, her commissario and his family. I've read all of them. When I started reading them, between the library and buying them, I was able to get all of them.

Now the library carries all of her books.

What is there not to like? The intellectual inspector, the political realist who knows that justice is seldom obtained in Venice or Italy, the revelations about Venetian and Italian life and the political system and more. Even the meals are scrumptious-sounding, the cafes wonderful.

Everything I've learned about Venice has been from Leon's books.

A friend and his spouse who also love her books and have read all of them, just purchased ten of them at a used bookstore and are rereading them.

Only wish that the German tv series of these books were available in New York City. Woefully, they're not.

Would wish the library would carry them, but I doubt it.

u l a n said...

Hi! I'm new to Donna Leon's work. I'd like to ask: Is it essential to read the Brunetti novels in sequence? Or can I just pick any title? =) I would appreciate your input very much. Thanks!