Mystery writers are often a mystery themselves, and few more so than Donna Leon. Until her latest book Uniform Justice appeared, her author profile was exceedingly discreet: she lives near Venice and teaches at a university there. She has, to date, avoided the performing monkey interviews that publishers have lately been inflicting on authors in order to promote their new books.
Now that her sales are rising steadily, her publisher has decided that we must have a little more information. So the biography is extended: Leon has taught English in many countries besides Italy and she reviews crime novels for the British weekly newspaper The Sunday Times.
More emerges in a radio interview. Leon is American. She has not lived in the United States for 30 years and wants to spend the rest of her life in Italy. She is puzzled as to why her books are not translated into Italian. She likes writing about food and she is considering whether to have Paola, the wife of her detective Commissario Guido Brunetti, stray a little from the matrimonial patch. She says that many Italians tell her she writes about Venice as an insider a rarity for an expatriate.
As to Uniform Justice, she hates military mentality and culture and in this book, she says, she is exploring her own prejudice.
The book also provides us with further information about Leon. She is not pleased with the present state of US politics, she writes of Americas appointed president with scorn, and she has a swipe at the violence of the countrys gun culture. Paola tells Brunetti that he is lucky to live in Italy where his confrontation with an angry military cadet does not result in him being shot, but that if he lived in Sierra Leone or America he would not be so lucky.
Leon and Michael Dibdin (Northern Ireland-born, pre-eminent crime writer of the Italian scene), both foreigners, have created Venice-born detectives as their protagonists. Brunetti is Leons, Aurelio Zen is Dibdins. Both authors share a nihilistic view of the Italian system of police and justice. Both detectives have to face the fact that even when the crime is solved, justice is not done. The criminals buy, lie, or use influence to escape into fresh fields, or just continue to live high on the hog as they have always done. The constant frustration of Brunetti and Zen at their inability to ensure their criminals are punished legally pervades each novel. Their superior officers and the politicians who determine judicial policy are all corrupt, opportunistic careerists or compromised, fearful collaborators.
In Zens case it destroys him. He works in Rome, he is alone. His girlfriend dumps him, his mother dies, his best friend betrays him, his daughter turns out not to be a DNA match with him, and his constant frustration at the corruption of the system within which he works leads him to accept a suicidal assignment to Sicily where he is duly blown up. Of course, Zen fans simply cant accept this, and Dibdin has been forced to resurrect him and send him to northern Tuscany where he finds love and is finally sent sailing into the sunset with a beautiful long-legged Italian widow.
As to Brunetti, he is more fortunate; he lives and works in Venice, has a loving wife who comes from a rich family, teaches the novels of Henry James to students at the university and is a good cook and warm companion. They have two normal and affectionate children. At police headquarters he has several trusted colleagues and an admirable personal assistant, Signorina Elettra, who works miracles on her computer, hacking through a labyrinthine network of contacts and friends in strategic institutions and corporations to extract significant and confidential information to help him solve crimes.
Uniform Justice is Leons 12th Brunetti novel. As each has appeared, her protagonist has slowly lost his optimism, his readiness to confront the corruption that surrounds him, his belief that justice exists somewhere. He is getting tired now, wondering if he should give up, get out, do something else before he finds his professional cynicism and bitterness pervading his family life. His joust with the private military academy and its culture disgusts him, but he wonders if it is just his own prejudice against the rich and their privileges their ability to create their own world and to shut out and despise the rest of society. He uncovers an ugly inferno of revenge taken against an honest man and then? Read the book.
One cannot help but wonder what will happen to Brunetti if Leon does have his wife Paola betray him. For his sake, the hope is not. The goodness and normality of his family is the rock to which he clings as all else fails him. Take that away and he too will probably need to sail off into the sunset... perhaps with Signorina Elettra?
Uniform Justice is published by Heinemann
and is available at English-language bookshops in Rome.
Michael Dibdins latest book And then you die
(an Aurelio Zen mystery) is published by Faber and Faber.
Picture: Donna Leon, creator of the popular Venetian detective Commissario Guido Brunetti.