The Joy of Entering Literary Worlds

One of the joys of reading is to escape. Not just escape, but to have the chance to explore new worlds. I don’t often consider this aspect of reading. More often I point to my love for language or my interest in human psychology and behaviour. I also love story, which means I love the thrills of the plot racing forward, and the cliff-hangers that make us say “Just one more chapter!”

I always associated escape and the building of ‘literary worlds’ with science fiction and fantasy. In the corner of Oxford where I live there are no shortage of famous homes and landmarks with links to such authors. I regularly walk past J.R.R. Tolkein’s old house on my way to work. I used to walk past the grave of C.S. Lewis every time I took my daughter to pre-school, cutting through the grave yard of Quarry Church. When I go for a walk I often find myself walking past the entrance to the house of the late sci-fi author Brian Aldiss.

(I will add here a detail which will be shocking to Terry Pratchett fans. As a teenager I joined a huge queue at WH Smiths in Nottingham to get a book signed by Terry Pratchett. I was fascinated by all things bookish, and knew I wanted to write. To meet an actual writer was thrilling. I loved the illustrations on the covers of Pratchett’s books. However, I just couldn’t get into the books. They weren’t my thing. To this day I have a signed copy of Good Omens, which is inscribed with the words: “To Russell, We made the Devil do it! Terry Pratchett”. I’ve had it for over twenty years and have never read it.)

Fantasy and sci-fi were never my kinds of genres. Yes, I dip into Tolkein and dabble with John Wyndham, but I’m never at home with the genre. For me it is always crime fiction, thrillers, and sweeping Victorian novels. These are the books I immerse myself in. They are just as escapist and immersive as any other created world. When I read Georges Simenon, I am in Paris, joining Maigret for his lunchtime sandwich and beer. When I read Agatha Christie, I’m in the world of picturesque villages with dark secrets, or I’m entering Poirot’s world of glamourous holidays and seemingly endless leisure time (not to mention income).

The word ‘escape’ can have unhealthy connotations. To escape reality can be harmful, hence ‘fantasy’ being on Anna Freud’s list of psychological defence mechanisms. However, there is a difference between the reader knowingly entering a fantasy world and the person who is detached from reality in response to the threat of psychic pain. We must remember Coleridge’s phrase on reading: the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. The reader knows the difference between fantasy and reality, and fully understands the tacit agreement with the author: “You tell me something as if it’s true, and I’ll believe it as if it’s true, even though we both know it is untrue.” I will add to this that poetic truth exists outside of literal truth anyway.

Which other worlds do I love to be immersed in? I read crime fiction set in various parts of Europe: Martin Walker’s books set in the Dordogne, Donna Leon’s Venice books, the Sicilian Montalbano books, Ragnar Jónasson’s Iceland books, Tom Benjamin’s Bologna books, Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh books, and the list could go on. These books give us a literary version of a real place, which is, I suppose, quite different from being in the place itself. We may get a strong cultural and geographic flavour of the setting, but where the line between fantasy and reality is, I don’t know. My own books, set in Portugal, offer an authentic sense of the city of Coimbra, but it will always be through my eyes and with my observations. I will people the city with characters I want to include, and will leave out the parts I have no interest in.

Since childhood I have been interested in Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase series, which are historical adventure stories, but which take place in an alternative 19th century history that never existed. Oh, and England is overrun by wolves. This is a world to escape into. I’ve recently been reading Louise Hare’s Miss Aldridge Regrets and Tom Hindle’s A Fatal Crossing, both of which are historical crime novels set on luxury ocean liners. Both books offer a whole world to enter into – glamour, luxury, and a sense of being away from the humdrum details of everyday life (such as having to call someone to fix your boiler).

While I was at university I read Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. This brick of a book, brimming with characters, and encompassing the filthy backstreets of London as well as the smart dining halls, also offered me a world to explore. Yes, it was London; yes, it was nineteenth century; but it was also the world of Dickens. I came to believe in those characters. I sometimes go back into that world when I’m in the mood. My bookshelf is packed with so many possibilities for exploration and escape that I see no reason why my passion for books, stories, words and worlds will ever be satisfied.

Donna Leon: Crime, Canals and Contralto

As the 31st Brunetti novel is published, Donna Leon remains as urbane and unaffected as ever. She is the crime writer who spends her time reading Dickens, Trollope and classic Greek literature. Leon presents herself as the cheerful book lover who stumbled into a career as an internationally bestselling author. Dividing her time between Switzerland and Venice, she gives the impression of thoroughly enjoying the life that success has allowed her.

As an illustration of how successful the series has become, it has spawned a Venice guidebook of walks and a cook book inspired by the Venetian food mentioned in the novels. It is also a mark of success that she has the luxury of choosing not to allow her books to be translated into Italian. She doesn’t want the bother of being famous in her own city. An American by birth, she has said in the past that she could never live in America now because she considers it, “cheap and vulgar.” Leon is not afraid to give a frank opinion.

In 1992 Leon was living in Venice. She was an English teacher with a passion for travelling, and had fallen in love with the city. She said in an interview with The Independent in 2010 that she wrote her first book “on a whim”. Similarly, in an interview with the Irish Times she said she wrote it as “a bit of a joke”. As a writer myself, I don’t believe a person writes 75,000 words on a whim. I do know that writers invent their public image to some extent and construct their own life stories in a way which is punchy and easy to communicate. This is part of the charm. (Roald Dahl claimed to have started writing after receiving a head injury in a plane crash; Agatha Christie apparently wrote her first book as a dare after her sister challenged her to write a detective story.)

Leon claims to be without ambition, which may be a key to her success. The story that she simply strolled into a new career as a crime writer may have some truth to it after all. It was the psychotherapist Viktor Frankl who said of success: “you have to let it happen by not caring about it.”

Aged 79, Donna Leon shows no sign of slowing down. There are precedents for writers who carry on with their profession for their whole lives – John le Carré was writing up to his death aged 89; P.D. James published her crime sequel to Pride and Prejudice aged 90; Andrea Camilleri was still writing his Inspector Montalbano books into his ninety-fourth year. Brunetti’s criminal investigations could continue for years to come, which is a welcome prospect to fans of the novels.

With success comes the freedom to do what less successful crime writers couldn’t dream of doing: sometimes Leon makes the crime a peripheral element as she brings human drama and the examination of human nature to the centre. Take her novel Earthly Remains, which is just as much about the environment and the effect of pesticides on the bee population as it is about murder. Unto Us a Son is Given is really about reflections on ageing and mortality, and the unusual decision an old man takes to ensure his inheritance goes to the right person. Even the title of one of her later novels, Falling in Love, is a title few crime writers could get away with. Most crime writers heavily indicate the genre with their choice of title, like Peter James who puts the word ‘dead’ in every title.

It is in Falling in Love that we see another passion of Leon’s, one which was there from the first book, Death at La Fenice. Opera and music are often present, appearing regularly in the setting or just in passing references in the prose. Baroque music is not just a passion of the author, but becomes part of the character of the landscape of Venice.

As well as the understated and thoughtful Brunetti, there is no doubt that the city of Venice is almost a character in itself. When the reader opens a Donna Leon book, they are taking a trip to Venice. The readers can walk through the campi and cobbled streets with Brunnetti, they can enjoy a glass of white wine and a plate of tramezzini with him in a local café.

For Leon, like many other crime writers, her books follow a pattern. It’s a pattern her readers like: a crime, the scents and sounds of Venice, a taste of the local food, and an insight into the comfortable and intellectual domesticity of Brunetti and his wife Paola. I call it a pattern rather than a formula, because a literary formula suggests something lazy or tired. Leon’s books are alive with insights into human nature, reflections on politics and society, and comments on the corrupting nature of power and money.

For me as a reader (and I’m sure I’m not alone), her least successful novel was The Jewels of Paradise. It isn’t just that the story doesn’t really take off, it’s also the lack of Brunetti. It’s her only non-Brunetti novel. As readers, we read series of books as a way of visiting old friends. The cast of regular characters in a detective story become more than literary devices for the working out of the plot. We want to spend time in their company, we want the reassurance of their presence when a crime is committed because we know from the first chapter that they will solve it. From Sherlock Holmes, through Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, and all the other detectives that would make up a long list of literary heroes, we know that their presence in this fictional world will give us a taste of the order and justice we hunger for in our own.

As for successors in the genre, there are English-language writers who are continuing the tradition. Tom Benjamin’s ‘Daniel Leicester’ series of crime novels set in Bologna have the same cultural authenticity, the same desire to see past the beautiful façade of urban Italy. Philip Gwynne-Jones offers us Venice in his crime novels, but in a series which has a different tone to Leon’s. I think as readers we want someone to give us an insider’s view, allowing us to see past the ice creams and the Cyprus trees (although I do happen to like both ice creams and Cyprus trees).

To emulate Donna Leon’s success would be hard. Leon said in a 2020 interview with the Boston Globe that she no longer reads crime fiction. This is a luxury few genre writers could get away with. A writer who no longer reads their genre is not going to stay at the forefront of it. Unless, of course, you have the reputation and literary ability of Donna Leon. Her writing is so good that she can almost forget about plotting. The genre is little more than a vehicle for exploring Venice, for creating a cast of characters who engage with the forces of good and bad in the world.

I hope the series continues for years to come. It’s nice to have ‘friends’ in Venice we can visit from time to time.