Donna Leon

Reading the background material about Donna Leon reveals an interesting fact. Despite her status as a best-selling author of crime novels set in Venice her books will not be translated into Italian in her lifetime.


Simple. Translate them into Italian and there goes the current lifestyle. She’s spent more than a quarter of a century in Venice and at the moment she’s almost completely anonymous in the local neighbourhood. Translate the novels into Italian (and it seems Italian publishers are definitely interested), end up on the best sellers’ list and she’d have to wave goodbye to all that.

Leon’s Venice, shared with other residents, the one Commissario Guido Brunetti moves through is a completely different universe to the one that’s visited by around twenty-million tourists a year, hustled around the familiar sights by tour guides sporting megaphones. Brunetti comes across that Venice from time to time, and his reaction is invariably one of annoyance.

An academic career took Leon through Iran, China and Saudi Arabia before she settled in Venice, and her first Brunetti novel, Death at La Fenice, as a joke after a friend suggested she try a crime novel. With the story finished, it was shelved until she decided to submit it for the Suntory prize in Japan. Predictably, given the way things turned out, it won, and a two-book contract with Harper Collins ensued, so she had to write a sequel.

Twenty years later she’s still going, turning out a new title every year as she guides Brunetti through the eccentric malevolence of the bureaucracy and the idiosyncrasies of Italian society. We’re talking crime insofar as Brunetti and his colleagues are cops, and there’s plenty for them to investigate in La Serenissima, but the investigations invariably abut on social issues, and the why they done it is more important that the who?

Like the best series in the genre, Leon manages what I’ve termed the soap opera backdrop rather well. There’s Venice, for a start, the odd occasion when the two versions of the city coincide, the trips on the vaporetto or the police launch, the walks from home or the Questura to wherever, the glass of prosecco here, the snack enjoyed there.

On the subject of food, there’s lunch, usually prepared by Paola Brunetti, who manages to combine a career as a professor of English literature with an ability to rouse up two or three course gourmet lunches as regulation day to day fare.

That’s just the background or environmental soap opera. On the human side there’s Brunetti’s family and his colleagues, in particular the omniscient Signorina Elettra, secretary to his would-be nemesis (the self-serving Vice-questore Patta), capable of unearthing the most theoretically inaccessible data with a few clicks of a mouse and the odd contribution from the keyboard. She’s a work of art in herself, or so I imagine, Andrea Camilleri’s Catarella morphed into a young Sophia Loren with the wit and sophistication moved to the other end of the spectrum for good measure.

And if you’re one of those who skims over the gristly details in the current craze for detailed forensics you’ll find Donna Leon’s books an almost cadaver carving-free zone, with just enough information being gathered from the autopsy to drive the investigation forward without overdoing the gory details. After all, when you’ve got Signorina Elettra on your side, mere surgical dissection only delivers a starting point to work from.


© Ian Hughes 2012