The Interview

Politics, faith, and the occasional corpse

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Anna Mundow
June 1, 2008

Donna Leon is best known for her subtle and enduring Commissario Guido Brunetti detective series, set in Venice. The latest installment in that series, "The Girl of His Dreams" (Atlantic Monthly, $24), is Leon's 17th Brunetti outing and one of her finest; a cunning novel of great depth, it opens with the peaceful death of Brunetti's mother but soon introduces us to a more violent, subterranean reality that exists underneath the picturesque Venetian surface.

Leon has lived in Venice for 25 years. She spoke while on vacation in Switzerland.

Q. How and when did Brunetti arrive?

A. I was at La Fenice opera house back in 1991 with friends, 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, where 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.

Q. Had you read Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen detective series when you started?

A. I'm not sure. I did read the first couple of Aurelio Zen books and thought they were very, very good, but the book of his I like best is "Dark Specter," set in Seattle. All through graduate school, instead of having a television I read murder mysteries: Hammett, Chandler, Ruth Rendell, P. D. James.

Q. The series is a sly commentary on environmental issues, politics, the Catholic Church. Is that very deliberate?

A. I try to avoid preaching. [My attitude to the Catholic Church] is shaped by the fact that I live in a country that is strangled politically by the church. Its iron grasp is firmly around the throat of the Italian government. So it's hard to be sympathetic to it in any way, as an institution. The general feeling among my friends is "My God, what did Italy do to deserve to have both the Vatican and the Mafia?" Most Italians don't take it very seriously, of course. The church baptizes you, marries you, buries you, that's it. But there is a good priest in this latest novel.

Q. Is this novel darker than previous ones?

A. I think it's the darkest because of the hopelessness and because almost everybody, with the exception of Brunetti and some of his friends, behaves badly.

Q. Has actual crime become more peripheral in your fiction?

A. I'm really not interested in who; I'm much more interested in why. I think that comes of living in Italy, where nothing is as it seems. For example, while Italy is completely obsessed with immigration, a newspaper article recently appeared saying that the Camorra, the Calabrian Mafia, last year probably made 42 billion euro. The Italian Mafia in total probably made 93 billion euro. Then there are the hundreds of murder victims. Who cares about immigration when you've got 93 billion euro going to the Mafia? When you've got a state of open warfare, when the reason that the garbage in Naples hasn't been picked up in 14 years is that the Mafia runs the place?

Q. In this novel you wonderfully convey the pain of loss. Do you also feel that for your characters?

A. Not so much, perhaps because I'm pulling the strings and I know what these characters can and cannot do. I know intuitively what they will say, how they will respond. In that sense they remain locked in my workroom. Anna Karenina is more real to me. The death of Lily Bart in "The House of Mirth" reduces me to tears. Those characters are more real to me, in a way, than my own creations.

Q. Are you quite clinical, then, in your approach?

A. Not at all. I never know what's going to happen in a novel. I don't have a plan or an outline. In fact I just got the idea for the next one today when I was working in the garden. Suddenly the word "planetary" came into my head and I thought "Wow, I could write about people who believe in all that mystical stuff." Card turners, magicians, horoscopes, are all very popular in Italy. There was just a mega-trial here of two television clairvoyants who were fleecing people. So that's the book after next, because the one for next year is already finished.

Q. You never stop, do you?

A. [Laughs.] I have two settings, high and off. I wake up like this! And writing these books is fun; they can still make me laugh.

How do you take breaks from the series?

I do a lot of journalism for various European newspapers, among other publications. I'm involved with a baroque opera company here in Italy. I write some of their booklet material, comments on operas. I also write for some baroque opera festivals because this music is my real passion.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, can be reached via e-mail at

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