One of the reasons I so enjoy Donna Leon‘s books is that the beautifully crafted and enduring character Commissario Guido Brunetti is so refreshingly normal. Not wounded – emotionally or physically – in the way that seems to have become almost de rigueur in police drama. He’s principled and compassionate. Utterly faithful to his wife, Paola. Loves his children. True, no meal however humble can pass without a glass or two or suitably matching wine, and he particularly enjoys a glass of grappa with his dessert. But he doesn’t wake up barely able to crawl to work or unable to remember the events of the previous evening.
Whilst criminals do abound, his lingering adversary is the divisive snobbery and rampant corruption that cripples every level of life in his beloved Venice. Ironically it is the elite social standing of Paola, that allows him to maneuver through the political web that is the city’s Polizia. The opening scene of The Waters of Eternal Youth provides even the newest reader with a colourful snapshot of the power elite that is the real Venice.
Over the years I’ve travelled many times to Venice with novelist Donna Leon. I’ve got to know the historic Italian city through the eyes of her enigmatic hero Commissario Brunetti who has a far more nuanced appreciation than the average tourist, or tourist guide. In her latest book, Falling in Love, Leon provides an encore appearance for famed opera soprano Flavia Petrelli who was introduced in Death at La Fenice, the first novel in what has become a 24-book series. Petrelli has returned to Venice to Teatro La Fenice to sing the lead in Puccini’s Tosca. Each night she is mobbed by fans clamoring for their moment in the company of greatness.
Reading a novel by Donna Leon is like taking a trip to Venice, so vivid is the environment she creates on the page. By its Cover, published in Australia this week, is the 23rd in The Commissario Brunetti series but Leon’s books have always been much more than straightforward crime novels.
Brunetti is his own man but not in the confrontational, rebellious ways of Ian Rankin’s Rebus or Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole. Brunetti works within, but is not part of, the inherent corrupt system that is woven into every the fabric of the Venetians’ lives; from unpaid taxes to the broad-ranging bribery of officials; deliberate incompetence by police to the theft of evidence and the pillaging of the
For the first time I kept a list of the books I read during past year and looking back over the months, 2013 was a rich year for literary pleasure. In total I read 76 books. That averaged out at about six books a month I only managed three in June yet nine in May (that’s the luxury of holidays). Apart from reading all the books on the Booker Prize shortlist there was no particular rhyme or reason to my selections. Sometimes I would just see a book in a book shop, other times it was the book selected by my book club. Sometimes it was a review or a news item in a newspaper or magazine or because an author was appearing at a literary festival I was attending (Dublin, Hay-on-Wye in England and Byron Bay in Australia).
Despite all that, I when I read other people’s end-of-year Best Of book lists I was stunned at the number I had not even heard of let alone all those wonderful authors whose books are sitting on my bedside table or in my e-reader but which I haven’t got around to reading yet. I did live up to the promise I made myself to read more collections of short stories and was richly rewarded. I read a pathetically small number of non-fiction which I hope to remedy in 2014. There were one or two which, if it were not for the “I’ve started so I’ll finish” rule, would have immediately been relegated to the bottom of the book pile but thus is the delicious serendipity of reading.
So, before the clock ticks over to a new day and new year, here is my top ten for 2013
Reading a Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti novels is like visiting friends who were born and raised in Venice. Every page is steeped in an insider’s understanding and knowledge both the good, such as the baked finocchio, to the insidious corruption which makes the locals ”instinctively distrust the state”. In her latest…