Twenty-five years ago – and 26 novels ago – Donna Leon, who grew up in New Jersey, stumbled upon her life’s work in Venice. “I was at La Fenice opera house back in 1991 with friends,” Leon told me in a 2009 interview, “and we started talking about a conductor whom none of us liked. Somehow there was an escalation and we started talking about how to kill him. This struck me as a good idea for a book. It took about a year, and after it was finished it sat in a drawer because I’ve never really had any ambition. I was always pretty shiftless in my life. But I entered "Death at La Fenice" in a contest, it won, I got a contract for two books, then two more and so it went.”
Decades later, a shiftless Leon is hard to imagine. Aside from writing a novel a year, she has a doctorate in 18th-century literature and a passion for Baroque opera, with which she is involved as a writer and a company director. To her readers, of course, she is above all the creator of Commisario Guido Brunetti, the complex and empathetic Venetian investigator who remains the fulcrum of her series.
Brunetti first appeared in "Death at La Fenice," where his presence seems slight – perhaps because the plot is one of Leon’s busiest. An obnoxious conductor, Maestro Helmut Wellauer, is found poisoned to death, and the subsequent drama unfolds with operatic brio. There is a tempestuous soprano, a vengeful wife, a horribly wronged mistress, plenty of nasty (as well as Nazi) secrets, and lots of good old comeuppance.
Yet no player is a caricature and no plot twist is excessive. Leon’s psychological acuity, sly wit, and artistic restraint both deepen and darken a novel that is, like all enduring crime fiction, a study of character as much as crime. And though the titles of Leon’s three subsequent novels – "Death in a Strange Country," "Dressed for Death," and "Death and Judgment" – suggested a series that would proceed with mechanical predictability, the opposite has been true.
Almost without exception, each installment in the Brunetti series is substantial and self-sufficient. For within the city of Venice and with a familiar cast of characters – Brunetti’s wife, Paola, and her aristocratic family, his friend and colleague Vianello, his insufferable boss, Patta, and the incomparable Signorina Elettra – Leon constructs elegant dramas around dense matters such as political, military or Vatican corruption, the victimization of immigrants, organized crime, environmental crime, and even New Age hucksterism.
The action begins, invariably, with a body. “He latched his fingers around the strands and pulled gently.... As he backed up one step it floated closer, and the silk spread out and wrapped itself around his wrist.” This is Brunetti in "The Girl of His Dreams," pulling a dead Roma child out of a canal. And here he is in Leon’s new novel, Earthly Remains: “At first, Brunetti looked to one side of the rope, then steeled himself and looked at it and what was below: the top of a head, a shoulder, the other, and then the chest of the man ... bobbing and turning in the water.” The drowned man, David Casati, is an elderly widower, beekeeper, and fisherman who knew Brunetti’s father. Casati is also the caretaker of the villa where Brunetti recuperates following an incident during an interrogation that makes him question his judgment and feel his age. “I can’t stand it any longer, doing what I do,” he confesses to his wife. Later, a doctor identifies Brunetti’s ailment as “Your work. The need to do something when you can do nothing.”
The physician could be addressing Henning Mankell's detective Kurt Wallender or, closer to home, Michael Dibdin‘s Venetian investigator Aurelio Zen. After all, what fictional detective does not despair? Certainly Brunetti, like his native city, is repeatedly engulfed: by sadness, by humanity. And never more so than in "Earthly Remains," which briefly transports him to an idyllic island (“Brunetti awoke in Paradise”) with Pliny to read and with Casati as his guide on the water. But even paradise is not what it used to be.
“Everywhere, we’ve built and dug and torn up,” Casati rages. ” We’ve poisoned it all, killed it all.” His bees are dying. Soon he is dead, perhaps murdered. And Brunetti is back in harness, but for how much longer? "Earthly Remains," for all its murkiness and skullduggery, is the most elegiac of Leon’s novels; it feels like a farewell.
In one scene, for example, Brunetti, Vianello, and Casati’s bereaved daughter sit “in silence for a moment, three Venetians, relatives at the wake of a city that had been an empire and was now selling off the coffee spoons to pay the heating bill.” Maybe so, but Leon will always bring this city back to life.