The American best-selling author Donna Leon has established Venice as the crime scene in this country (i.e. Germany); her Commissario Guido Brunetti has taken his place in the hearts of German readers. In Fine Friends (Friends in High Places), Brunetti snoops around, for the ninth time already, through the narrow alleyways of Venice and gives his best in the endless struggle against corruption, usury, and drugs. Amazon.de spoke with Donna Leon about her popular Comissario, her home of choice, Venice, and Italian society.
Your detective stories featuring Commissario Brunetti always make it into the bestseller lists in Germany. What makes an Italian Commissario, of all people, a perfect identification figure for German readers?
Donna Leon: Readers can identify so well with Brunetti because he is a rather decent and nice man: He loves his wife and children, gives his best as Commissario and tries to live a good, decent life, even though that is sometimes rather difficult in his occupation. In addition he is intelligent, attentive and considerate.
Besides Brunetti, Venice, your chosen home for many years, has been playing the main role in your detective stories. How do you gather all the information about the city and its internal machinations?
Leon: I read a great deal, but I learn the most about the city by listening to Venetians conversations. I have been living here now for so long, that I am part of the furniture for my friends and neighbors. They speak openly about social, political and personal problems. Besides, I read the same newspapers as Brunetti and Paola.
In the last two, three books Brunettis wife Paola plays more of a central role in the action. In the ninth case, Fine Friends, she plays no important role and is relegated to her domestic and family affairs. Why is that?
Leon: I dont determine the distribution of roles in advance. More accurately, the characters create their own positions; it simply happens. When I begin writing, I have no clear vision, how the story will develop or which persons become important. Paola was quite overpowering in the last years, but in this volume she is occupied with different matters.
As already indicated in the title, "Fine Friends"
play an important role for Venetians, when they are faced with problems. Even Brunetti attempts to straighten out his problem with his living accommodations not legally, i.e. through proper channels, but rather via "conoscenze" acquaintances, friends, connections and favors owed to him. In contrast to the majority of people, however, he cant be bribed, and he has a fine sense of what is morally defensible and what not. Where do you draw the line?
Leon: I am not so sure that Brunetti would consider it against the law to ask old friends for help or to call on someone who owes him a favor. Contrary to regulations perhaps, but perhaps not even that, for that is the way things get done, and that very efficiently. It may be that have become too much of an Italian in the meantime to consider the bending of rules and regulations immediately as illegal or corrupt. When the system does not function, we all find a way. I would never dare to dictate what is moral and what not.
In Fine Friends
, Brunetti gets entangled in a web of corruption, drugs and usury, from which there is no simple way out. Therefore, in the end a tone of frustration and disillusionment takes over. Does Brunetti lose his hopes and ideals? Is heas a policeman in a corrupt and false societydoomed to fail?
Leon: I am not certain whether Brunetti must inevitably fail. Perhaps what makes it so sad is that he is condemned to try. I believe that for this reason men like Falcone and Borsalino are at the same time saints and martyrs. Inspire of a society that tried to thwart them by any means, they have not given up to fight for what they consider the common good. And they were killed for that.
In Fine Friends
, Paola says that she has lost her faith in social justice and equality before the law for good. Does that reflect the general tendency within Italian society?
Leon: I have never yet met an Italian who seriously believes in the competence of the government or justice from the judicial authorities. If that were the case, books would reflect this attitude. I portray more or less what I have been hearing from my Italian friends for years.
Is the impression correct that your social criticism is getting harder and more pessimistic from one book to the next?
Leon: No, I cant agree with that. I believe, however, that it becomes weightier from novel to novel. The stories dont get darker, but there are simply more and all are equally pessimistic.
One function of the detective novel is to hold up a mirror to society and offer criticism. Do you see yourself as part of a tradition of writers who use the depiction of crime as a means for social criticism?
Leon: I dont see myself so much as a critic but rather as someone who points out specific social conditions. To make myself out to be a social critic would elevate my position excessively.
Have you read the books by Henning Mankell that are quite popular in Germany right now? Do you see any parallels?
Leon: I think that the parallels can be found in the societies in which the two police officers are working: the old, comfortable and self-satisfied attitude that everything is working beautifully and that we are successful, is suddenly called into question through social change. I have read Mankells books and admire them.
Do your readers have to be fearful that Brunettilike Mankell's Kommissar Wallanderis sent into retirement soon?
Leon: No. The laws have been changed and it is now much more difficult in Italy to retire early. How lucky for me!
Are there any plans for further cases with Brunetti, or have you already written something?
Leon: Yes. The tenth case, Sea of Trouble, has just been published in England. In that volume, Signorina Elettra is one of the main characters. Volume eleven is at the moment in the process of being published.
Are you working on other books or projects on the side?
Leon: I am trying to assist the conductor Alan Curtis with the production of Händel operas in Italy and Germany.
Can you tell me something about your writing habits? How do you develop a new story?
Leon: I usually begin with a motive for the crime, even if at the beginning of a book I often dont know yet exactly what kind of crime it will involve. Sometimes I have only one scene in my head, normally the opening scene, in which the corpse is found. After that the story takes off on its own and develops, as it likes. I have spoken with other writers of detective literature and several tell me that the same process develops with them once they begin writing. Since it has so far been functioning this way with all my books, it does not worry me any longer. But I must admit that in the beginning it was a funny feeling that the characters do more or less what they want.
Donna Leon, we thank you for this conversation.