The Elegant Yet Socially Relevant Mystery Novels of Donna Leon

By , Contributor
Donna Leon could paraphrase Raymond Chandler and say of Guido Brunetti, the hero of her wonderful series of detective novels set in Venice, “Down these mean canals must glide a man of honor.” In fact, the canals of Venice are as polluted as they are beautiful, so they serve as a convenient metaphor for what Leon is doing with the series. In virtually every one of the nineteen novels that Leon has written, Brunetti is at some point stunned by the beauty of his native city, and at some other point he is disgusted by its depravity.

Leon is a rare detective story writer who has benefited from reading Shakespeare and the Bible, as titles such as Through a Glass Darkly and Suffer the Little Children suggest. She brings into play a range of tones and emotions that is most unusual in a detective story.  And, speaking of literary heavyweights, she creates a wise, knowing presence behind Brunetti, very much as Tolstoy does. In one scene in Through a Glass Darkly, for example, Brunetti is talking to a colleague who says that he often played hooky from school.

Leon both gives Brunetti a response, and also comments on his response: “‘Me too,’ replied Brunetti, who had not.” What she’s telling us is that Brunetti took his responsibilities seriously, and still does, but that he also wants to make his colleague feel comfortable. The result is that we feel closeness, an intimacy with Brunetti that may be unique in detective fiction.

And it’s a good thing, too, that we feel so close to Brunetti, because he doesn’t always get his man. Sometime he finds out who did it, but realizes that the system is so rigged, and the courts so corrupt that he can’t put the bad guy or bad guys away.  Often, when it’s a matter of pollution and the illegal dumping of toxic wastes—issues to which she returns again and again, as in Death in a Strange Country and About Face—the damage has already been done, and sending somebody to prison seems irrelevant.

By implying that corrupt, seductive Venice will endure, she aligns herself with Robert Crais, for example. At the end of Crais’ masterful LA Requiem, Elvis Cole broods over LA very much as Brunetti broods over Venice.

Although Robert B. Parker gives his hero Spenser gay friends and even a gay policeman, it would be hard to name another major writer of detective fiction has ever presented the results of homophobia as powerfully as Leon has done. Her novel Dressed for Death deals with prejudice against the gay underworld in Venice; Acqua Alta portrays a victimized lesbian couple.

I have a final thought. We are living in the great age of detective fiction, an age in which the best practitioners of the form (Robert B. Parker, Robert Crais, Donna Leon, April Smith) are creating, and have created, a canon of masterpieces that future generations will read and enjoy. Like Venice itself, they will endure.

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