If you read only the hard stuff, you might get ratty. About three years ago, I asked a friend to recommend a good crime or thriller writer. He said that a woman called Donna Leon had a following for detective stories set in Venice, starting with a plot centred at the opera house La Fenice. I read one and Donna and I are getting just fine. I have just read about my tenth, which is also centred on La Fenice, and the stalking of the prima donna in Tosca being performed there. This is a real bonus for fans of opera or Venice.
Donna Leon is or was an American academic who taught literature and music. She has lived in Venice for 25 years, which is about the number of the novels in the series. Like most crime novels they are written after a model.
Commissario Guido Brunetti is a very astute detective who studied law and who occasionally reads Greek tragedy for uplift. (How many wallopers do that?) His wife Paola lectures in English, specializing in Henry James. She is also the daughter of a count and countess. She can also cook, and we get full descriptions of her offerings. They have two children who must now be of university age.
There is a support cast that reminds me of Perry Mason. The bad guys are Brunetti’s superiors, who are from out of town, thick, and right wing. The good guys include plain honest cops who have no guile or political ambition, and Signorina Elettra who is a whiz on computers and bending the law. Anything to do with government, bureaucracy, the south, or the church is open season. Indeed, for me the crime plot is just an excuse to hang up the clothes on which to examine Italian customs, foibles, and culinary and artistic traditions. They are I would guess the main reasons that Leon has such a following. She is translated into many languages, except Italian, and the Germans have made TV series about her stories.
Leon is an acute observer of her adopted country – or, I should say, city, since we are often told that Venice is different – and spoiled by tourists and cruise ships. Many of her books look at current issues, such as child abuse, child slavery, or stalking. But it is the descriptions of city life and eating and drinking, and the social customs that get me in.
Brunetti dined with his wife at her parents – ‘he was surprised by how casually his parents-in-law were dressed until he realised this meant that the Conte’s tie was wool and not silk, while the Contessa was wearing black silk slacks and not a dress.’ They discuss the grand-son’s love life. The grand-daughter is not showing much interest. ‘It won’t last much longer’, Paola said, voicing the eternal pessimism of the mothers of young girls. ‘Some day she’ll show up at breakfast in a tight sweater and twice as much make-up as Sophia Loren.’ It is not just mums who know that. The corruption is worse down south. Some of the barbs are laugh out loud. After some spectacular act of deviance, Signorina Elettra, who may have raised the pulse rate of a younger or single man, swaps stories with the dottore. She knew of a guy who was a stage hand at the opera in Naples. He never actually worked there. He just clocked on and off five days a week and drove his cab seven days a week. He had to. He had many mouths to feed. How long did this go on? A mere quarter of a century.
These books are seriously entertaining and you get a slice of life of the people who gave us Verdi and Ferrari, two of mankind’s essential blessings. The 2015 model, Falling in Love, is up to form.