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Venetian Verite: Donna Leon's Gritty Italian Mystery

Donna Leon was born in New Jersey and has lived in Venice, Italy, for 30 years.
Regine Mosimann
Donna Leon was born in New Jersey and has lived in Venice, Italy, for 30 years.

Writer Donna Leon has lived in Venice, Italy, for three decades, and in that time she has published 20 crime novels featuring the suave detective Commissario Guido Brunetti.

Like the rest of the series, the latest Brunetti thriller, Drawing Conclusions, features plenty of red herrings, glasses of wine and servings of pasta. In fact, the new book begins with Brunetti being called away from dinner to investigate the death of a widow. Although the medical examiner has declared that she died of a heart attack, Brunetti is suspicious and applies his considerable detective skills to get to the truth.

"He's a decent man; he's intelligent; he's well-read," Leon tells NPR's Liane Hansen. "At times, he seems to go about things slowly but he's always calculating. He also, as a Venetian, is able to manipulate the very treacherous waters of the city — at least the treacherous official waters."

In the novels, Brunetti — who comes from working-class roots — is married to the daughter of a count and countess. The couple's class struggles often figure into each mystery, but the marriage also affords Brunetti certain professional advantages.

"[His wife's] aristocratic and wealthy family was something I invented in the first book, knowing that it would provide him with access to information from a world to which he did not have access and would not have access because of his social position," Leon says. "Being married to a woman who grew up in that society ... it allows him the right to slip into it and ask questions of people who otherwise would be protected from him by their lawyers."

Real Italian Inspiration

Leon says Brunetti isn't based on a real person, but she does admit to the character having some real-life Italian inspiration.

"He's an Italian, so it would be extraordinary if he did not eat well at least once a day," she says. "I follow him through his normal life; he talks to his kids, he talks to his wife, he goes about being a detective. But he also has to eat."

And while it would be difficult to set a story in Italy and not talk about food, Leon says she tries to avoid indulgent writing.

"The description of the meals is not what I call food porn," she says. "There are not long, loving descriptions of how a meal is prepared and the savory taste of this and that. There are merely descriptions that are little more than the names of the things that are eaten."

In other words, it's just enough to make it feel real – and that doesn't end with the food. A good part of Leon's international success could be attributed to her realistic approach to each story. Because for Commissario Brunetti, as in life, there are rarely any easy solutions.

"I don't see in the real world where things are neatly tied up and the bad guy does time, because it simply doesn't happen," Leon says.

Living With The Brunetti Series' Success

With all the talk of keeping her stories realistic, it's clear that Leon has managed to stay pretty grounded, which is impressive, considering her celebrity. But Leon says things would have been different if she had found fame at a younger age.

"I was almost 50 when this happened," she says of her success. "If it happens when a person is younger, I think it is [easier] for them to fall into the trap of believing it. That because they are able to do one thing well or one thing with success — those two things not being synonymous — they somehow are set apart from other people. After a certain age you realize that that's nonsense."

Leon has put the success of her Brunetti crime series to good use. Twelve years ago she began investing in her other great interest, opera, through the Il Complesso Barocco opera company

"For me it's thrilling because I'm a voice junkie and that really is my passion," she says.

But opera is still a side project for Leon — if only because she always gets drawn back into her mystery writing.

"There's always another Brunetti mystery in the works," she says.

So with 18 years of Commissario Brunetti behind her, there's certainly more to come.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.