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.