In Venice, dirty business for a thoughtful cop

Mystery author Donna Leon talks about her new novel "Beastly Things" and its environmental themes.

Venice is a small city (population 60,000), says Donna Leon of the setting of her mystery novels. "Venetians "tend to know one another, which means they know history and gossip."

If your job requires you to endlessly struggle against a dysfunctional system, you've got some company in a Venice police detective named Commissario Guido Brunetti.

He must deal with ineptness both above and below. On top of that, he has to convince skeptical Italians to cough up the truth.

Brunetti's challenges make for scintillating reading in the best-selling mystery novels of American expatriate Donna Leon. In the latest, "Beastly Things," Brunetti must dip into the horrific world of meat processing to solve a ghastly murder. 

In an interview from Italy, Leon spoke about the annoying conductor who inspired her writing career, the moral codes of Italians, and her fears about her storied city's future.
Q: How did you begin to write mysteries?

About 20 years ago, I was in the dressing room with a friend of mine, who was then conducting at La Fenice, and his wife, both Sicilian.  We started to talk about another conductor, and there followed an escalation. We soon found ourselves discussing his murder, there in the dressing room.

I thought it might be an interesting subject for a crime novel, something I'd never thought of writing, and decided to try to write a book.

Q: For people who aren't familiar with him, could you describe Commissario Guido Brunetti?

He's a commissario of police and has been a policeman for some time. He's married to a university professor – happily, it seems – has two teenaged children, and is a cultured man who reads and reflects upon Greek and Roman history. He has a sense of irony, is seldom judgmental, and – luckily – is connected to many strata of society in the city.

Q: What special obstacles and challenges do detectives in Venice face?

Italians tend to be less rigidly moral and law-abiding than do Anglo-Saxons. They also have a profound suspicion of the state and most of its agencies.

Venetians feel affection and loyalty to their city, rather than to the Italian state. Since it is a small population – 60,000 – people tend to know one another, which means they know history and gossip. And there is, as so often in Italy, a political importance or weight to certain events.

Q: How are Italians less law-abiding?

It's more an attitude of profound suspicion toward authority of any sort. 

Just look at what seems to be happening in the world of soccer: the current accusation is that many of the games were fixed so as to favor betting syndicates.  There is also the current, and quite delicious, scandal convulsing the Vatican.

Q: Without giving too much away, "Beastly Things" focuses on the environment, including the ravages of urbanization and our treatment of the creatures around us. What do you fear about the future of Venice?

I figure the city will be under water in 50 years, or the acqua alta will be so beyond control as to make life here unlivable. The acqua alta is the flooding that comes in the fall – usually – and brings water into many of the streets and first floors of the city. 

Q: How did you end up in Venice in the first place, and what made you stay?

I came to Venice for the first time in 1968 and was lucky enough to make the acquaintanceship, and then the friendship, of two Venetians, Roberta and Franco, who remain my best friends here after almost 50 years.

I was gradually absorbed into their families and thus have cousins and aunts and, to a certain degree, familial obligations. I settled here in 1981, found a job, and decided to stay because I had friends and work.

Q: Your books give us a glimpse into Italian life. What do you think we can learn from reading about it? What do you want to get across about its strengths and weaknesses?

Good heavens, I don't want to get anything across to anyone. My purpose is entertainment, not preaching. The books suggest the way some Italians live and think. That's all.

Q: What's next for your detective?

Next is a book about language and how it makes us be human.

Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor's Books section.

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