When my daughter was young, I learned that I could not read fiction at night—fiction that was any good, at least. I could no longer afford to stay awake when she was asleep. Like everything else, reading time had become compressed with the demands of a new baby.
These years also intersected with my employment at a thrift store, where I was in charge of book processing and pricing; after blazing through every parenting tome that passed through the store’s donation door, I moved on to other nonfiction and discovered its appeal. Nonfiction had the added benefit of not just edifying me about the larger world, but also putting me to sleep after a mere chapter or so.
That is how I discovered Jan Morris’ seminal work The World of Venice (1960). I had read an article about the city and its struggles with rising water levels, but wanted to learn more about how the city was founded. After finishing with Morris (a fascinating figure herself), further research on modern Venice led me to an article about author Donna Leon, who is a resident of Venice and the author of over 20 mystery novels set there.
Armed with the basics of Venice’s settlement from Morris’ book (a swampy lagoon is a good place to hide from marauding Visigoths, it turns out), I tucked into Leon’s novels with emphatic delight. There is nothing so delicious as reading the first few titles of an author’s work and knowing you have many more awaiting you. Leaving aside the historical perspective of mercantile savvy and naval might, life in Venice is seen through the more modern eyes of Commissario Guido Brunetti, a police detective who is caught between thorny city and national politics—all of Italy being swayed in some way by the historically Mafia-controlled southern region—as well as a regular citizen besieged by tourism in a city that has been an attraction for visitors and fortune-seekers for hundreds of years.
Good and bad come and go, their
ebb and flow the only constant.
Writing a mystery is no small thing, to my mind. It’s very difficult to be deceptive while lying out the actual solution the entire time (one of the mandates of detective fiction as set down by the eminent P. D. James in her 2009 study on the genre, Talking About Detective Fiction), and it’s very tricky to serve up a notion of justice if the location you’re writing about has a reputation for thievery and corruption. Though Commissario Brunetti is clearly the good guy and always gets to the bottom of his cases, he is seldom able to pursue formal prosecution. Instead, he takes the long view of justice, which seems fitting, as Venice has always been a city taking the long view, too: like the water in the canal, the masquerades at Carnavale, the tides and the tourist dollars, good and bad come and go, their ebb and flow the only constant.
When Americans travel to Europe, they are often focused on this kind of long view, too. They arrive ready to view all the celebrated antiquities: cathedrals, battlefields, castles, and esteemed works of art preserved in museums that have long lines. It is very easy, then, for a person like to me visit the Continent and not see it as a place where normal people live and work.
But in Donna Leon’s Venice, we are given a window into that very thing. We take the vaporetti and police boats across the city as Brunetti examines crime scenes; we avoid the rush of tourists vomited forth from whale-like cruise ships muscling through the Grand Canal; we catch our breath in a small bar for a drink and some refreshments in between interviewing witnesses. We put on high boots and walk on planks during the season of acqua alta; we go home for lunch every day to see what Brunetti’s wife Paola, a professor of English who is descended from a noble Venetian family that traces itself back to the time of the doges, has prepared him for lunch. We ache over the pollution and environmental devastation along with Brunetti’s trusted colleague, Lorenzo Vianello, and we see the world as a series of digital codes to crack, through the very chic and fashionable Signorina Elettra.
Having Leon’s modern view of Venice, as well as historical perspective thanks to writers like Jan Morris and Jeannette Winterson, when a chance to visit the city presented itself I snapped it up—though I am anything but an intrepid traveler.
Visiting Venice, I got to see firsthand how this unique city works. How the daily routine is governed by water traffic, how the Rialto crushes you in the heat of the noontime cruise-ship debarkation, how the migrants from Ethiopia and Somalia selling wares laid out on cloths on the cobblestones are the newest merchants of Venice. I walked in Brunetti’s footsteps, over bridges and on stone paths, beyond the gondolier stops and the shops selling knockoff designer bags, far from San Marco and into the residential areas where laundry flapped overhead between stone buildings that were already ancient when my ancestors came to the United States. Despite its reputation for being built on water, Venice is truly walkable: some travel guides suggest one could cover it in an afternoon. The farther I went into the quiet streets, away from all the allures of the site-seeking visitors, the more I felt like I was out of place, putting myself into the often-discomfiting shoes of a police detective who knows the game of self-interest yet has no desire to be bought.
Writing mystery stories in a city that has been full of political intrigue and influence-peddling for centuries is no small task. Donna Leon delivers many juicy episodes in this increasingly imperiled and invaded city, where more than forty percent of the residents do not live there full time, and where the canals, which had once been so clean that Lord Byron would swim through them to get home on nights he drank too much, are considered toxic. In the time of the doges, there was a practice that involved people informing on their neighbors; simply slipping your anonymous charges into the “Lion’s Mouth” outside the doge’s palace could cause another’s ruin. The place retains a sly, sneaky feeling.
Leon starts her series out with a very famous and familiar site, La Fenice Opera House, in Death at La Fenice (1992), but over the course of reading, you will become acquainted with all of Venice proper, as well as the islands in the Lagoon. Most people know Murano for its glass-blowing and Burano for its colorful architecture, but with Leon’s Brunetti as your guide, you will visit Giudecca, Chiogga, San Clemente, Torcello and more, far beyond the usual tourist path. And you don’t even need to leave your house.
Read the Booklist review of The Waters of Eternal Youth (2016), the twenty-fifth and most recent Guido Brunetti novel.