DISCOVERING DONNA LEON

You know the expression “So many (fill in the blanks), so little time? In my case, the missing word is definitely BOOKS.  Of course, there’s no solution to this wonderful, terrible conundrum. If I lived another hundred years, I would only find myself falling further behind. There is simply no possibility of catching up. Ever.

So what does a passionate reader do? Well, I’ve decided to relax, and do my best to make every read worth it. Life is too short to stubbornly stick to a book that isn’t stimulating, or moving, or thought-provoking, or beautifully written, or wonderfully original, or sweet and delightful, or enlightening, or funny, or brilliantly compelling, or profound, or inspiring, or wise, or thrilling, or just plain escapist fun!

 

My reading, of late, has been all over the place, but I managed to settle for a while on Donna Leon’s first two novels, Death at the Fenice and Death in a Strange Country, published in 1992 and 1993 respectively. I had heard of her, of course, but it wasn’t until I stumbled upon a very recent, witty interview in the New York Times’ “By the Book” column—in which she spoke about her tastes, ideal reading experience, all-time favourites and a lot more—that I was no longer able to resist her. I think she’s even more interesting than her novels, if that’s possible.

I chose the first two because in such a long, compulsively readable crime series—her protagonist is Commissario Guido Brunetti of the Venice police who is featured in 23 novels, to date—it’s best to get on board on the ground floor and, if possible, read them in order (I can at least try).

 

I’ve often observed friends and family members diving into a new, compelling series (otherwise known as “binge-worthy”), and gorging on each new title till they’ve reached the end. And I envy them. I’ve watched it happen among my friends with Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series; and my sons have burned through the works of Robert Jordan, Jim Butcher, Preston & Child (and even re-read them a second time) and many more.

But, since the Online Book Club began at the Pointe-Claire Library, reading eight books by a single author, one after the other, is no longer possible, or rather, it wouldn’t make for much of a book blog. Instead, it’s important to offer posts on a variety of works, some of which do, at times, pull me out of my comfort zone—and I’m much the richer for it.

Venice, La Fenice

But I loved Donna Leon’s novels, and will try to go back to her as often as possible. If her first two are any example, then it should be a fascinating journey, because, with the exception of Guido Brunetti, his wife Paola, their two children, and his social-climbing buffoon of a boss, Vice-Questore Patta, Death at La Fenice and Death in a Strange Country are a study in contrasts.

 

In novel number one, a world-renowned conductor, Maestro Helmut Wellauer, is found dead as a result of drinking cyanide-spiked coffee in his rooms at La Fenice—Venice’s opera house—between the second and third acts of La Traviata. In such a closed environment, one would think that it would be easy to zero in on a suspect, but the reader soon discovers that in a theatrical production that requires the musicians, singers and behind the scenes staff and crew to move around constantly, it’s almost impossible to pin any one suspect down, though the circumstantial evidence points obstinately in one direction.

La Fenice, interior

Death at La Fenice is a wonderful introduction to Venice’s more glamourous façade and to the operatic world and its divas. But it also explores the suffering and secrets hidden beneath the glitz, and provides a denouement that reaches back to twentieth-century Europe’s blackest period.

When I finished it, I meant to switch over to a completely different type of book, but Leon’s second novel, Death in a Strange Country, was just too enticing, and it’s perhaps because I read them so close together that the contrast between them was so stark. Though I found Commissario Brunetti, his family and his sycophantic boss once again, this time, Leon lead me away from cultural Venice, straight to its filthiest canal and the body of an American soldier floating in it, entangled in a mystery that unwinds principally in Vicenza, a train ride away from Venice, Brunetti’s home and comfort zone. In fact, Vicenza is the home of an American military base that is another legacy of the Second World War.

There’s nothing glamorous about this case. Instead, the novel offers us, and Brunetti, an opportunity to glimpse at what lies behind the façade of the Italian elite, its politics and economics, and peek into the ways the Mafia has infiltrated all of the above.

Author Donna Leon has called Venice her home for most of the past thirty years, and it’s this attachment to a city she clearly loves and knows intimately that grounds her beautifully and sharply written crime novels. I have the feeling that after reading all twenty-three of the Guido Brunetti mysteries, I might feel as though I’ve lived there myself.

Donna Leon, in Venice

 

 

 

 

 

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