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.