Donna Leon’s novels featuring the thoughtful and erudite Det. Guido Brunetti, of the Venetian police, have topped international bestseller lists and won international awards (including the CWA Silver Dagger). They have also been adapted into a popular, long-running television series in Germany and have been optioned by the BBC.
Leon’s devoted readers love her books for their juicy mystery plots, and also for the rich and varied cast of recurring characters, among which is the city of Venice itself. I met her there at a cafe on a crisp winter morning. Leon, who is American but has lived in Venice for decades, is lean and gray haired, and she has the intensity of an academic (she was an English professor before becoming a writer). Over cups of macchiatone and brioche, we talked about life, serendipity, books, and her new Guido Brunetti novel, Falling in Love (Atlantic Monthly, Apr.).
“I had so much fun writing Falling in Love because it is about opera,” Leon says, her enthusiasm evident. “I have told myself time and time again not to [focus on opera] in my books because I have read novels by crime writers who are ancient book dealers or cooks or firemen, and they drag the things they are interested in into their books, and I didn’t want to do this. But then I thought: I have a really good idea.” She was right on target.
In Falling in Love, Flavia Petrelli is in Venice to sing the role of Tosca at the opera house. The excessive and increasingly frightening adoration of an anonymous fan leads her to ask for help from her old friend Brunetti.
“I know about this kind of obsessive fan through singers, because writers don’t elicit that particular kind of attention,” Leon says. “We get enthusiastic readers, but not at that level. I think that it is because opera and rock music are intrinsically more emotional. Almost every opera singer I have spoken to has had an experience with a fan who either was wildly out of control or mildly preoccupying. The phenomenon is not uncommon. The singers are usually women and the extreme fans are usually women—I find that really interesting.”
This isn’t Flavia’s first turn upon Leon’s stage. She appeared—as a suspect—in her first novel, Death at La Fenice, published in 1992 by HarperCollins. Nor is opera ever far from the heart or mind of Leon, who sponsors and collaborates with opera companies. In fact, a visit to the opera is responsible for her career as a writer.
For many years Leon was an itinerant English literature teacher in such far-flung places as China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. “I just wanted to have fun,” she says. “I’d go somewhere and teach for a couple of years and then move on. I never got the ambition stuff. My parents just wanted me to be happy.”
By 1981, Leon decided it was time to put down roots and because she had Venetian friends, she settled in Venice. One evening she and her friends were backstage at the Venice opera house, La Fenice, and the conversation turned to the recent demise of a despised conductor. Soon the possibilities of a murder mystery evolved. As a lark, she wrote Death at La Fenice and sent it off to a mystery writing contest.
Much to Leon’s surprise, she won first prize. She has written a Brunetti novel every year since. “If I hadn’t had that conversation, I’d never have written the first book,” she says.
That a successful novel should emerge fully formed at the first attempt can be put down to Leon’s wide reading of detective fiction. The mystery writer she likes best is Ross Macdonald, creator of the sensitive and observant Lew Archer. “Archer is smart and he really likes women. You might say,” she adds with a grin, “that Brunetti is Lew Archer with a wife.”
“Macdonald’s prose is wonderful, his sentences are sometimes serpentine, sometimes as balanced as anything Alexander Pope wrote,” Leon says. “I also like the way the past always comes along to haunt and destroy the present in his books.”
Like Macdonald, Leon’s evildoers are not psychopathic serial killers or rapists. She, too, delves into the more interesting territory of moral corruption, in all its forms.
After strolling the narrow alleys and breathtaking quaysides for 25 years, how has Leon’s detective changed? “Brunetti has become bleaker over the years,” the author says. “I don’t think it is a quality associated with getting older—rather, show me an Italian who is capable of hope.”
Does Brunetti ever surprise Leon? “Yes, he does,” she says with delight. “In the book I am currently working on, and in Falling in Love, Brunetti discovers old friends—and I didn’t know them. In fact, when I left the house this morning, Brunetti was out on the lagoon rowing with an old friend for the first time in 10 years. I don’t know where he [the friend] came from. Brunetti is out there getting blisters on his hands and on his feet. Happy as a mud lark because he can be out with no people, no lies, no confusion, just the desperate calm of the lagoon. Who knew all that? So, yes, he does surprise me.”
Leon notes that a friend of hers “plans every aspect of her mysteries before she writes a word. How can she know all that stuff? I have to wait until I have an opening. And once I have that, it leads ineluctably to chapter two and so on. That’s the way it has worked in all the books, so I don’t tamper with it. It has never really happened that I knew the ending when I started writing.”
Leon’s novels have been translated into some 30 languages—but she is as adamant as ever about not allowing them to come out in Italian. “I want to live an invisible life,” she says. “I don’t mind being famous in other countries, but not in the country where I live. I don’t want that treatment that famous people get, that deference. That’s another reason I now live part of the time in Switzerland—because everyone is invisible in Switzerland. Swiss people are so discreet.”
Leon now does most of her writing there. “I can work all day for two or three weeks at a time at my house in Switzerland and do nothing else,” she says. “There is no phone, no people asking me to go out for coffee.”
When I ask Leon how fame has changed her life, she replies: “I can pretty much do what I want to do—which is not cocaine or a big car or going on a cruise. What I want to do is have work I enjoy. I want to hear people singing. I want to be with people I love and I want to spend time learning things from reading. I can travel and I can go wherever I want to go, which is usually to attend an opera.”
Leon collaborates with Il Pomo d’Oro Orchestra, writing program notes, scouting singers, organizing recording opportunities, and even appearing on stage as a narrator in some productions. “We’ve made six recordings and all of them have won prizes,” she says. “We’ll be in the States in November of this year. Wherever the orchestra goes, I go.”
Will there come a time when Leon will retire Brunetti and devote herself totally to her opera company? She grows thoughtful as she considers the question. At last, she says, “I’ll keep writing them as long as it’s fun.”
Patricia Guy is a freelance writer living in Verona, Italy, where she writes about wine, food, and Italian culture.