Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Donna Leon: Read and Savor

When I tell you about Donna Leon, I am really introducing you to a friend. I can’t remember when we met, but I can tell you that I seek her out whenever I can. Just listing her books, I realized there were several I hadn’t seen and I ordered them immediately, from the Amazon re-sellers.

“Why the resellers?” you are asking. Donna Leon is not that easy to find, in the United States. Some of the books in her series seem to have been printed only in the UK, which is a pity, because The Donna Leon books really need to be read in order.

While they can be a quick read, they are better read slowly and savored. It’s not that hard. Her humor is subtle, sometimes even sly. Commissario Guido Brunetti, her main character, lives in Venice. He has a family, a sweet wife – Paola, and a daughter and a son. He eats Venetian meals, he lives in an illegal Venetian apartment, he has a glass of wine or two with his lunch. It helps to read the books in order, as his children grow from childhood to teen-agers, and to grow older with him as he solves his cases.

But in Donna Leon’s books, solving the cases is not the goal. As often as not, even while Brunetti solves the case, justice is not served. The books are about the living conditions and social realities of life in Venice, and in Italy. The books are about painful subjects – child prostitution, traffic in women, blood diamonds and African immigrants, and about art fraud and Mafia crime and big business. And the book is about Venetian and Italian interconnections, so that some crimes just disappear, some evidence just disappears, and Brunetti’s dunderhead of a boss tells him to just look the other way.

While each book is deceptively short, and written in clear, simple language, the books are richly complex, weaving a myriad of details into each page.

Thanks to Donna Leon, I know what it is like on a cold, rainy day in Venice, when the water rises and you have to try to walk on raised boards to get where you are going. I know what it is like to have a family emergency and the police vaporetto is in use elsewhere and to try to figure out the fastest way to run home, crossing bridges, grabbing a taxi, complicated by the canal system and tourist infestations in Venice. I know when policement get together for lunch in Venice, you don’t talk business until AFTER you have finished your exquisite pasta with truffles, accompanied by a glass or two of the fabulous house wine. Donna Leon has taken me there.

In Death and Judgement, the book I just finished, Brunetti is called by a police sergeant who has arrested a former police sergeant and wants Brunetti to come to the station. Brunetti’s conversations with the arresting sergeant always require a lot of patience:

(Brunetti) “Did the people in Mestre tell you to make out an arrest report?”
“Well, no, sir,” Alvise said after a particularly long pause. “They told Topa to come back here and make a report about what happened. The only form I saw on the desk was an arrest report, so I thought I should use that.”
“Why didn’t you let him call me, officer?”
“Oh, he’d already called his wife, and I know they’re supposed to get one phone call.”
“That’s on television, officer, on American television,” Brunetti said, straining towards patience.

We’ve all been there. Dealing with those who think they understand, and their understanding is . . . imperfect.

In another part of this book, in which the major issue is the big business of trafficking in women for prostitution, Brunetti is having a conversation with his wife:

Paula pulled gently on his hand. “Why do you use them?”
“Hum?” Brunetti asked, not really paying attention.
“Why do you use whores?” Then, before he could misunderstand, she clarified the question. “Men, that is. Not you. Men.”
He picked up their joined hands and waved them in the air, a vague, aimless gesture. “Guiltless sex, I guess. No strings, no obligations. No need to be polite.”
“Doesn’t sound very appealing,” Paola said, and then added “But I suppose women always want to sentimentalize sex.”
“Yes, you do.” Brunetti said.
Paola freed her hand from his hand and got to her feet. She glanced down at her husband for a moment, then went into the kitchen to begin dinner.

If you are reading that interchange too quickly, too superficially, you will totally miss the significance of the last sentence. If you have been married a long time, you will totally understand that a whole lot happened. This is one of the things I love about Donna Leon.

Death at La Fenice
Death in a Strange Country
Dressed for Death
A Venetian Reckoning
Acqua Alta
The Death of Faith
A Noble Radiance
Fatal Remedies
Friends in High Places
A Sea of Trouble
Willful Behavior
Uniform Justice
Doctored Evidence
Blood From a Stone
Through a Glass Darkly


February 22, 2007 - Posted by | Books, Detective/Mystery, Family Issues, Fiction, Financial Issues, Friends & Friendship, Generational, Living Conditions, Poetry/Literature, Political Issues, Relationships, Social Issues, Spiritual


  1. I’ve read 3 Donna Leon and enjoyed them because they were so refreshing after all the American and British police novels I’d read where the main character is a tortured, haunted individual. It’s lovely to have characters who have a good stable family life. The pace of life is so well evoked, the importance of family and food, but still that undercurrent of threat and darkness.

    Comment by mrschaieb | February 24, 2007 | Reply

  2. Mrs.Chaieb – and sometimes the discouragement, and chagrin at the corruption of the system is overwhelming. And I love it that Brunetti has that stability and balance in his life, when he has to deal with a world where corruption is taken for granted.

    So I am guessing you do NOT like James Lee Burke? 😉

    Comment by intlxpatr | February 24, 2007 | Reply

  3. I’ve only read one JBL and I did enjoy it in parts but, like the Scarpetta novels, they start to irritate me because I know they’re novels but really, how much misery and threat to the individual can you pack in? What attracted me to JBL was the location and the way that the geographical environment is so integral to the threatening atmosphere. Carl Hiaasen, being an environmentalist who has fought long and hard to save the Florida Everglades, as well as one of the best novelists around, uses the Everglades as a character in itself. In the UK we don’t really have wilderness and wildness like the southern US and I’ve always been drawn in novels to the bayous and the characters they throw up.

    Comment by mrschaieb | February 25, 2007 | Reply

  4. Because I read JLB (he is an author I will even buy in hardcover because I can’t wait) I feel like I KNOW Bayou Teche, I feel like in another life I grew up in Louisiana. And yes, somehow it is the same brutal fight in each novel, but JLB also – like Leon – throws in serious social issues, and how organized crime corrupts . . . and how for the seriously bad guys, it always catches up with them. But occasionally his writing zooms into the sheer poetic, and for those moments, I get through the rest.

    Comment by intlxpatr | February 26, 2007 | Reply

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