#175: DEATHS IN VENICE. P.D. James’s crime novels are rightly noted for a mastery of setting and a somber tone; but in her late work The Murder Room, a second corpse is revealed in so startling a manner—a cell phone ringing in a most unexpected place—that I swore I could sense James rubbing her hands together and saying, “Well, that ought to make ‘em sit up and take notice.” There was something unmistakably funny about it. I began to notice that in later years her author photos no longer had the usual posed and serious look and had been replaced by a mildly sardonic smile. Finally, in The Private Patient—a Golden Age-style mystery with a secluded setting, limited cast and even a locked room—it was as if James was saying, “There—I’m eight-eight and I can still do it better than any of you.” It had never occurred to me she might actually be enjoying strewing the landscape with bodies.
I had a similar experience recently watching some interviews online with Donna Leon, the author of the prized series of mysteries, set in Venice, featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. She came across as being utterly relaxed before an audience, possessed of an amiable and easy wit, a marvelous raconteur, and, at her own insistence, a happy human being. Asked if she was a disciplined writer, she said “I’m not a disciplined anything.” When the interviewer described the ending of one book as having hurt, Leon immediately said, with obvious relish, “Good.” She gave every evidence of being someone who was having a ball and meant to go on doing it.
The Brunetti novels take full advantage of their setting—in Acqua Alta, for instance—the title in reference to Venice’s frequent submersion in rains and tides—there’s one casual scene of Brunetti on a stakeout, having a drink in a bar while up past his ankles in standing water. Whereas in the classic English mystery you have the backdrop of a fully functioning justice system, in Venice you have a city submerged as fully by judicial and political corruption as by the rains. This in turn leads to a theme of vigilante justice. In the interview Leon compares vigilantism to a hot fudge sundae: “You know it’s bad for you. You know you shouldn’t do it. But you do, and it tastes so good.” In Death in a Strange Country Brunetti is defeated by judicial corruption; the only justice is in the violent revenge of a young criminal’s mother. At the end of Wilful Behaviour the crime’s resolution is left in the limbo of the court’s Dickensian delays; it is Brunetti himself who sticks a final psychological knife into the murderer and twists it towards justice.
The happiest of all genre readers is one who has found an author with a long list of titles to work their way through. There was universal wailing when P.D. James died a few years ago—no more Adam Dalgliesh. No new Sherlock Holmes, no more Peter Wimsey. At the moment, having just finished Wilful Behaviour, I’m a third of the way through Leon’s novels, with a thirtieth due in a few weeks, which means I have nineteen Brunettis ahead of me. Chalk up one more happy human being.
A chronological list of the Brunetti novels can be found at https://www.bookseriesinorder.com/donna-leon/.
P.S: A dandy addition to the crime novels is Leon’s book My Venice and Other Essays (Atlantic, 2013). These are short knockoffs—casuals, they used to be called—on music, animals, family, men, America, writing and, of course, her featured city and its surrounding landscape. They all look so easy, and then any number of them clamber into memory and stay there. Observation, yes, amusement (hers and ours), yes, but just wait until she lets rip: on the fighter pilot whose high spirits rammed a plane into an Alpine cable car (title and conclusion: “It’s a Dick Thing.”), a property developer’s comments on sex tourism (“I had only two choices: get up and refill my coffee cup or drive my fork into his left eye.”), or her scathing report of a year spent teaching among the men in Saudi Arabia: “During the first Gulf War I found myself saying that I wished the navigators on the U.S. bombers would get their flight path wrong by a few miserable degrees and end up laying a line of big ones straight up the main highway, right into the living room of the Royal Palace in Riyadh.” To Leon's humanity and her skills as a storyteller, let us add the accomplishments of invective.