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Highbrow Lowbrow

THE GENESIS, and huge international success, of the Venetian suite policière involving Commissario Guido Brunetti has to be one of the oddest publishing stories in years. Donna Leon (if that isn’t a nom de plume it should be), a New Englander of Irish descent, came to rest in Venice about thirty years ago, after short spells as an itinerant teacher in countries as diverse as China, Switzerland, and Saudi Arabia. Though English Lit. was her stock-in-trade and the novels of Henry James her abiding obsession, she had never for one moment considered embarking on a career of fiction, let alone crime fiction, herself. On her own account, this happened by complete accident. Another of her major interests happened to be baroque music, opera in particular. A well-connected woman, she found herself one day chatting with the reigning diva at La Fenice, the great old Venice opera house, in her dressing-room. Talk turned to a certain conductor, whom they both detested (his name has never been revealed, but if I had to guess I’d say it was von Karajan). What a pleasure it would be to murder him. How would one go about it?           

Leon, by way of a joke, offered to create a plausible scenario. The result, as we all know, was Death at La Fenice, the first volume in what became an ongoing series. Did she promptly send her jeu d’esprit off to a publisher? She did not. The joke was forgotten, and the manuscript languished in her desk drawer for a year. But a friend spotted a competition for crime novels being held in Japan, and prodded Leon into submitting an entry. Even when it won first prize, we are told, she never thought of following up this success with another volume until she read the contract, which committed her to writing two more.

So, at least, she claims in interviews: I suspect that in fact, to her surprise, she found writing her own idiosyncratic version of a crime novel both easy and enjoyable. What remains a mystery, as welcome as it is baffling, is her enormous popularity, since the audience she aims at (as she cheerfully admits) is educated, civilized, well-read, morally alert, and intellectually curious: quick to catch allusions or arcane literary jokes, involved in the political and social problems of the modern world, humane and liberal in the best sense of those much-abused terms. She has a weakness for aristocratic virtues. Guido Brunetti himself relaxes with Aeschylus or Marcus Aurelius; his wife Paola not only teaches Henry James (among others) at a Venetian university, but when last seen was re-reading The Ambassadors for the fourth time.

She also cooks a varied and mouth-watering series of Italian dishes, twice a day, for her generally ravenous family (including two adolescents, Raffi and Chiara), a habit recently parlayed into a published collection entitled Brunetti’s Cookbook (it should, in all justice, have been Paola’s, but name-recognition is a ruthless dictator). On top of all this Leon evinces a not-so-genial contempt for bores, Philistines, greedy opportunists, social climbers, and, above all, the millions of tourists swarming through her beloved Venice for the larger part of the year. She is, in fact, an elegant and thoroughgoing elitist. And her countless readers, tourists included, love it.

Death at La Fenice came out in 1992, and since then Leon has steadily produced a new case for Commissario Brunetti every year: with Beastly Things, her twenty-first volume, the series might be said to have come of age. Yet to a striking degree it has not changed. Almost all the main recurrent characters—the Vice-Questore, Giuseppe Patta, Brunetti’s pompous boss; Lt. Scarpa, his Sicilian bête noire, and other members of the Questura—were in place from the start. The only later additions have been Brunetti’s faithful Sergeant (later promoted Inspector) Vianello, and Patta’s elegant, computer-savvy secretary Elettra Zorzi, who advances the cause of justice (and circumvents a mass of red tape) by blithely hacking into the records of just about every institution and government department in Italy. These new faces are partly balanced by the disappearance of the diva Flavia Petrelli and her lover, the archaeologist Brett Lynch, last seen in Acqua Alta. The coming-of-age is also, inevitably, beginning to confront Leon with problems of chronological plausibility. Though all her cases could, in theory, take place within three or four years of each other, Brunetti’s children Raffi and Chiara (for example) must very soon finish school and college, find jobs, get married, fly the coop, and eschew Paola’s daily magical meals.

The cases themselves tend to combine a specific murder with some more general public scandal, most often fed by deep-seated corruption, ambition, and greed. Among Leon’s targets in this area have been environmental degradation (a very real concern in Venice, with the Mestre chemical factories just across on the mainland), the illicit disposal of toxic—including nuclear—waste, baby-farming, the prostitution of foreign immigrants, loan sharks, snuff movies, and in her latest, the illicit certification of disease-ridden cattle as fit to be slaughtered for human consumption. Greed is the dominant motive of her criminals (Paola uses The Spoils of Poynton to show baffled undergraduates that not all motives are primarily financial), with sex and ambition very much as also-rans. Brunetti himself has to cope throughout not only with complex and morally ambiguous cases, but also with the limitations of Vice-Questore Patta. For this gentleman the socially well-connected are innocent (or at least virtually non-arrestable) by definition; keeping Venice’s reputation clean as a mecca for cash-rich tourists aces unpleasant exposure every time; and avoiding personal responsibility for the potentially embarrassing is something Patta has raised over the years to a fine art.

One critic quoted on the dust jacket of Beastly Things remarks that “remarkably, for a long-running series, Leon’s characters are more interesting now than they were eighteen years ago,” and this is true. Like Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey in the 1930s, Guido Brunetti has accumulated depth and subtlety book by book. In Beastly Things he learns, the hard way, unpleasant facts about the meat industry that have long since made vegetarians of his daughter and Inspector Vianello. Leon has never written a more powerful sequence than the chapter in Beastly Things where Brunetti and Vianello visit a busy slaughterhouse. Working out the connection between the anonymous murder victim who surfaces in a Venetian canal and how the knackers go about their bloody business shows Brunetti at his best: shrewd, morally sensitive, yet ruthless in the pursuit of literally sickening corruption. And in a gentle and charming epilogue Leon describes the funeral service for an upright, yet all too human, veterinarian where there are as many pets—cats, dogs, even parrots—as people in the congregation. Set, as always, against the living background of Venice itself, and the family background that keeps Brunetti’s moral compass straight while letting him enjoy good food, wine, and loving support, Beastly Things is a quietly satisfying celebration of the series’s twenty-first birthday. Long may it continue.

Inevitably, so popular a suite policière has begun to generate spin-off items, of which Brunetti’s Cookbook has been the most successful. Now Leon has brought out Venetian Curiosities, a miniature handbook nicely illustrated by Canaletto and other Venetian artists, and containing a clutch of exotic historical anecdotes, of which my favorite is the one about the city using its colorful prostitutes in a campaign to compete with homosexuality. But the real winner here is the accompanying CD, beautifully recorded on antique instruments by Il Complesso Barocco, of some of the best concertos for oboe, bassoon, or violin that Vivaldi—very much a local composer—wrote for the forty or so girls, mostly orphans or noblemen’s bastards, brought up at the state’s expense as trained musicians in the Ospedale della Pietà. Take a glass of good prosecco, sit down, read, and listen.

Peter Green is the former fiction critic of the London Daily Telegraph, and an occasional poet and novelist.