Since we recently visited Venice, I wanted to read books that takes place there. I came to think of the popular books by Donna Leon, and downloaded the first one in the series of Commissario Brunetti Death at la Fenice.
Donna Leon is an American author who lived over 30 years in Venice. She was working as a lecturer in English literature, and also taught English at an American military base in Italy. She drafted her first story and then left it in a drawer, until a friend persuaded her to submit it for a writing competition. She won it. Up until now, the last came in 2023, she has written 32 novels about Commissario Brunetti. The first one was published in 1992. They have been translated in numerous languages, but not in Italian, on Leon's request. German TV has made a number of the books into a very popular TV-series which, of course, is filmed in Venice. It is a pleasure to see them, since they give you the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful scenery of this fantastic city on water.
After less than a month, I am on my 9th novel. This is an indication that the books are an easy read, and that you get totally hooked, almost addicted. You can read them in any order, but to read them in order give you a sense of the development of the characters. Reoccurring characters are:
Commissario Brunetti Paola Brunetti, his wife Raffaele and Chiara his teenage children Vice-Questore Patta, his boss Signorina Elettra, Patta's secretary who assists Brunetti and is a master of research. She saves the day in every novel Inspector Vianello, his colleague and a few other characters
In each novel Brunetti faces a different crime. Leon uses these crimes to highlight the darker side of society, as well as the corruption in Italy. If you are expecting a typical murder/crime story where the culprits are brought to justice in the end, you will be disappointed. Most of the time Brunetti find him, or her, but they are not always put to trial. In Italy, it seems, it is a matter of the people you know, and the influence they can provide that decide the outcome.
The first book was written already in 1992. Leon takes up various crimes and many of them seem relevant also today. That makes you wonder wether nothing has happened. Typical crimes could be; sex tourism, migration frauds, black market work, money laundering, murder, corruption, financial crime, and many more. All of them still on the menu today.
Brunetti is a very likeable character, not like many depressed, middle aged, over worked detective inspectors we read about today. Leon describes Brunetti in her first novel Death at la Fenice as "a surprisingly neat man, tie carefully knotted, hair shorter than was the fashion; even his ears lay close to his head, as if reluctant to call attention to themselves. His clothing marked him as Italian. The cadence of his speech announced he was Venetian. His eyes were all policeman".He is portrayed as honest, intelligent and diligent in his work. He is happily married to Paola, a university lecturer, and has two children, Raffaele (16) and Chiara (13). He is well-educated (with the title dottore) having read classics at university, and speaks English well, from working in the USA for a period. He is by turns philosophical, intelligent and compassionate, but also pragmatic, with "native skills of subterfuge, trickery and deceit". A very likeable character in other words. He keeps a low key, one can even compare him to Hercule Poirot.
Some thoughts about him and his family. Although Brunetti is happy that his wife is working, and she is highly educated, she still takes care of everything at home. The understanding wife, always making lunch for the family and seem to do other chores at home as well. Although, in one of the books, it seems he goes around the house with the vacuum cleaner. They do discuss his work and she does give him a good discussion. Still seem to be a little bit of inequality in their relationship, since he expects the service at home. Maybe because we don't get to know very much of her work. She is a lover of Henry James, so some, if not all, is forgiven.
A rather unusual, and sympathetic character is the secretary Elettra of which Brunetti is both fond and admire. She has skills in computer handling of which he has no idea. Almost every day, Brunetti remarks about her fashionable clothes, and how stunning she is. This is maybe more the Italian style, even today, I don't know, but seems a little bit condescending between the sexes today. However, he acknowledges her extraordinary skills in many areas of her work. I do like her character very much, because she is her own person, and does not care what other people think.
To start a new book is to see old friends again. That is probably why I start a new book, almost immediately after having finished one. Leon gives a vivid picture of Venice with all it peculiarities, being a city on water. After having lived there for so many years, she knows it all. You can use the books to find restaurants, bars and tourist places. Almost like a guide book how to go from one place to the next in Venice. Having just been there, this brings extra excitement to the reading, since you know, more or less, where the people are.
Have you read any of her books? If not, and you are interested in detective stories with a touch of reality, you should try them out.