Venetian Verite: Donna Leon's Gritty Italian Mystery

Donna Leon was born in New Jersey and has lived in Venice, Italy, for 30 years. i i

hide captionDonna Leon was born in New Jersey and has lived in Venice, Italy, for 30 years.

Regine Mosimann
Donna Leon was born in New Jersey and has lived in Venice, Italy, for 30 years.

Donna Leon was born in New Jersey and has lived in Venice, Italy, for 30 years.

Regine Mosimann

Writer Donna Leon has lived in Venice, Italy, for three decades, and in that time she has published 20 crime novels featuring the suave detective Commissario Guido Brunetti.

Like the rest of the series, the latest Brunetti thriller, Drawing Conclusions, features plenty of red herrings, glasses of wine and servings of pasta. In fact, the new book begins with Brunetti being called away from dinner to investigate the death of a widow. Although the medical examiner has declared that she died of a heart attack, Brunetti is suspicious and applies his considerable detective skills to get to the truth.

"He's a decent man; he's intelligent; he's well-read," Leon tells NPR's Liane Hansen. "At times, he seems to go about things slowly but he's always calculating. He also, as a Venetian, is able to manipulate the very treacherous waters of the city — at least the treacherous official waters."

In the novels, Brunetti — who comes from working-class roots — is married to the daughter of a count and countess. The couple's class struggles often figure into each mystery, but the marriage also affords Brunetti certain professional advantages.

"[His wife's] aristocratic and wealthy family was something I invented in the first book, knowing that it would provide him with access to information from a world to which he did not have access and would not have access because of his social position," Leon says. "Being married to a woman who grew up in that society ... it allows him the right to slip into it and ask questions of people who otherwise would be protected from him by their lawyers."

Real Italian Inspiration

Leon says Brunetti isn't based on a real person, but she does admit to the character having some real-life Italian inspiration.

Drawing Conclusions
Drawing Conclusions: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery
By Donna Leon
Hardcover, 256 pages
Atlantic Monthly Press
List price: $24

Read An Excerpt

"He's an Italian, so it would be extraordinary if he did not eat well at least once a day," she says. "I follow him through his normal life; he talks to his kids, he talks to his wife, he goes about being a detective. But he also has to eat."

And while it would be difficult to set a story in Italy and not talk about food, Leon says she tries to avoid indulgent writing.

"The description of the meals is not what I call food porn," she says. "There are not long, loving descriptions of how a meal is prepared and the savory taste of this and that. There are merely descriptions that are little more than the names of the things that are eaten."

In other words, it's just enough to make it feel real – and that doesn't end with the food. A good part of Leon's international success could be attributed to her realistic approach to each story. Because for Commissario Brunetti, as in life, there are rarely any easy solutions.

"I don't see in the real world where things are neatly tied up and the bad guy does time, because it simply doesn't happen," Leon says.

Living With The Brunetti Series' Success

With all the talk of keeping her stories realistic, it's clear that Leon has managed to stay pretty grounded, which is impressive, considering her celebrity. But Leon says things would have been different if she had found fame at a younger age.

"I was almost 50 when this happened," she says of her success. "If it happens when a person is younger, I think it is [easier] for them to fall into the trap of believing it. That because they are able to do one thing well or one thing with success — those two things not being synonymous — they somehow are set apart from other people. After a certain age you realize that that's nonsense."

Leon has put the success of her Brunetti crime series to good use. Twelve years ago she began investing in her other great interest, opera, through the Il Complesso Barocco opera company

"For me it's thrilling because I'm a voice junkie and that really is my passion," she says.

But opera is still a side project for Leon — if only because she always gets drawn back into her mystery writing.

"There's always another Brunetti mystery in the works," she says.

So with 18 years of Commissario Brunetti behind her, there's certainly more to come.

Excerpt: 'Drawing Conclusions'

Drawing Conclusions
Drawing Conclusions: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery
By Donna Leon
Hardcover, 256 pages
Atlantic Monthly Press
List price: $24

1

Because she had worked for decades as a translator of fiction and non-fiction from English and German to Italian, Anna Maria Giusti was familiar with a wide range of subjects. Her most recent translation had been an American self-help book about how to deal with conflicting emotions. Though the superficial idiocies she had encountered — which had always sounded sillier when she put them into Italian — had occasionally reduced her to giggles, some of the text returned to her now, as she climbed the stairs to her apartment.

'It is possible to feel two conflicting emotions about the same person at the same time.' So it had proven with her feelings towards her lover, whose family she had just returned from visiting in Palermo. 'Even people we know well can surprise us when they are placed in different surroundings.' 'Different' seemed an inadequate word to describe Palermo and what she had found there. 'Alien', 'exotic', 'foreign': not even these words did justice to what she had experienced, yet how explain it? Did they not all carry telefonini? Was not everyone she met exquisitely well dressed and equally well mannered? Nor was it a question of language, for they all spoke an Italian more elegant than anything she heard from her Veneto-cadenced family and friends. Nor financial, for the wealth of Nico's family was on view at every turn.

She had gone to Palermo in order to meet his family, believing he would take her to stay with them, yet she had spent her five nights in a hotel, one with more stars awarded it than her own translator's earnings would have permitted her, had the hotel accepted her insistence that she be allowed to pay the bill.

'No, Dottoressa,' the smiling hotel director had told her, 'L'Avvocato has seen to it.' Nico's father. 'L'Avvocato.' She had started by calling him 'Dottore', which honorific he had dismissed with a wave of his hand, as though her attempt at deference had been a fly. 'Avvocato' had refused to fall from her lips, and so she had settled on 'Lei' and had used the formal pronoun, after that, for everyone in his family.

Nico had warned her that it would not be easy, but he had not prepared her for what she was to experience during the week. He was deferential to his parents: had she seen this behavior in anyone other than the man she thought she loved, she would have described it as fawning. He kissed his mother's hand when she came into the room and got to his feet when his father entered.

One night, she had refused to attend the family dinner; he had taken her back to the hotel after their own nervous meal together, kissed her in the lobby, and waited while she got into the elevator before going meekly back to sleep in his parents' palazzo. When she demanded the next day to know what was going on, he had replied that he was the product of where he lived, and this was the way people behaved. That afternoon, when he drove her back to the hotel and said he'd pick her up at eight for dinner, she had smiled and said goodbye to him at the hotel entrance, gone inside and told the young man at the desk that she was checking out. She went to her room, packed, called for a taxi, and left a note for Nico with the concierge. The only seat on the evening plane to Venice was in business class, but she was happy to pay it, thinking it took the place of at least part of the hotel bill she had not been allowed to pay.

Her bag was heavy and made a loud noise when she set it down on the first landing. Giorgio Bruscutti, the older son of her neighbors, had left his sports shoes on the landing, but tonight she was almost happy to see them: proof that she was home. She lifted the bag and carried it up to the second landing, where she found, as she had expected, neatly tied bundles of Famiglia cristiana and Il Giornale. Signor Volpe,who had become an ardent ecologist in his old age, always left their paper for recycling outside the door on Sunday evening, even though there was no need to take it out until Tuesday morning. So pleased was she to see this sign of normal life that she forgot to pass her automatic judgment that the garbage was the best place for both of those publications.

The third landing was empty, as was the table to the left of the door. This was a disappointment to Anna Maria: it meant either that nothing had arrived in the mail for her during the last week — which she could not believe — or that Signora Altavilla had forgotten to leave Anna Maria's post for her to find when she got back.

She looked at her watch and saw that it was almost ten. She knew the older woman stayed up late: they had once each confessed to the other that the greatest joy of living alone was the freedom to stay up reading in bed for as long as they pleased. She stepped back from the door to Signora Altavilla's apartment and looked to see if light filtered from beneath the door, but the landing light made it impossible to detect. She approached the door and placed her ear against it, hoping to hear some sound from within: even the television would indicate that Signora Altavilla was still awake.

Disappointed at the silence, she picked up her bag and set it down loudly on the tiles. She listened, but no sound from inside followed it. She picked it up again and started up the steps, careful to let the edge of the bag bang against the back of the first step, louder this time. Up the stairs she went, making so much noise with the bag that, had she heard someone else do it, she would have made some passing reflection on human thoughtlessness or stuck her head out of the door to see what was wrong.

At the top of the steps she set the bag down again. She found her key and opened the door to her own apartment, and as it opened, she felt herself flooded with peace and certainty. Everything inside was hers, and in these rooms she decided what she would do and when and how. She had no one's rules to obey and no one's hand to kiss, and at that thought all doubt ended, and she was certain she had done the right thing in leaving Palermo, leaving Nico, and ending the affair.

Excerpted from Drawing Conclusions: A Comissario Guido Brunetti Mystery by Donna Leon. Copyright 2011 by Donna Leon. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Monthly Press.

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by Donna Leon

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