A deadly fascination with Venice: Crime author Donna Leon turns 75 | Books | DW | 28.09.2017
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A deadly fascination with Venice: Crime author Donna Leon turns 75

She is one of the world's most successful authors and has put the spotlight on Venice in her detective novels. At 75, Donna Leon is still busy plotting her next crimes.

The American novelist didn't even have to search for a pen name when she wrote her first detective novel nearly 50 years ago. Her own name, Donna Leon, already sounded like a trademark.

Indeed, after publishing 26 novels featuring Venetian detective Commissario Guido Brunetti, her name has become known around the world. Leon turns 75 on September 28, but retirement isn't on her mind.

From world traveler to author

For decades, it didn't seem as if Leon would become a writer. She was born in Montclair, New Jersey in 1942, had a carefree and happy childhood and became a world traveler shortly thereafter.

At age 23, she left the US to study in Italy. For 15 years, from 1965 to 1980, she worked as a travel guide in Rome, an advertising editor in London and taught English in schools in Switzerland, Iran, China and Saudi Arabia. "As a young woman, I just wanted to have fun," she said during her current book tour in Germany.

However, it certainly wasn't any fun when her dissertation on Jane Austin was lost as she fled the Islamic revolution in 1979. She had worked on the draft for five years. The loss also meant the end of her academic career as a literary scholar. "This was probably the best thing that happened to me in my life," she says in interviews. Venice became Leon's new home.

Meet Commissario Brunetti

Donna Leon - The Waters of Eternal Youth (Verlag William Heinemann)

Commissario Brunetti is the leading character in Leon's detective novels.

Venice is also home to humble Commissario Guido Brunetti who lives with his wife Paola, a specialist in American literature just like the author, and their two children. Their spacious apartment with a large roof terrace where two canals meet can be found on a city map that comes with the books.

"Brunetti is a wonderful character," Leon said in a 2016 interview with German newspaper Die Welt. "He is just as I would like men to be: reserved, responsible, discreet."

Leon has been connected to her character since 1992. The idea for her first novel came to the music lover after seeing an opera at Teatro La Fenice, after which she had a conversation with the conductor about the death of star conductor Herbert von Karajan. "I thought that was an interesting way to start a crime scene, and so I thought I'd go ahead and write one." 

"Death at La Fenice" was her debut novel and became a great success. She has since been able to let her Commissario Brunetti investigate in Venice each year.

Donna Leon (picture-alliance/dpa/C. Oelrich)

After living all over the world, Donna Leon says she would like to be a Swiss citizen

Foul play in the present day

The crimes are the typical ones one would expect in an overpriced city: corruption, mafia real estate or art trade.

In "Death in High Water," the ever-rising flood drives the action. In "Blood from a Stone" a black market merchant is shot right in front of people's eyes in a busy market.

But Leon's crimes don't feature extensive bloodshed. The author avoids brutality and carnage. Brunetti tries to understand his perpetrators and victims, their passions, lust for power and money and fear and despair.

Leon finds a clear enemy in the Catholic Church, especially in the legends surrounding the Opus Dei institution and its members. For Leon, these groups are on par with the mafia and major corporations.

Brunetti 2018 soon to be published

Donna Leon does not want a big celebration for her birthday, but her fans will certainly celebrate the next novel, which will be published in 2018, under the title "Temptation of Forgiveness."


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