The other day, in order to avoid talking about Crimea, (I care very much, but our democratically elected leaders are not interested in the opinions of those who elect them), I talked about my bedtime reading. Someone has written to say she thought it was rather erudite: a fat book about Bach and a book of essays by a psychoanalyst. But next to those is a book by Donna Leon, whose detective novels set in Venice were recommended by the same someone. (No names, no pack-drill.)
I’m selective — well, all right, snobbish — about Detective Fiction. I’ll read PD James, but then she uses the detective genre to write novels that are every bit as ‘literary’ as those of, say, AS Byatt. I’ll read Raymond Chandler for the setting — for an Englishman who spends much of his time in Greece, the West Coast of America is more exotic than Venice — and the demotically expressed moral seriousness of the Marlowe/Bogart character. And I’ll read Margery Allingham because hers are the essential classics of the genre. So I wasn’t at all sure I’d like Donna Leon.
I was told I should start with ‘Death at La Fenice’. The death is that of an ageing and very famous opera conductor, fairly obviously based on someone I’d better just call H von K as I found myself wishing it were a true story. There was a lot of action and dialogue; very few page-long passages of reflection. Not the least interesting part was the detailed map of Venice, which let one check and visualize the movements of the characters. I enjoyed the book but felt, as I’d been told I might, that this was ‘light’ reading; entertaining and undemanding.
Now I’m on my third book of the series. It’s just as entertaining, but my judgement was too hasty: paradoxically, Leon is a much better writer than she seems to be. The reason there are no dense, actionless, dialogue-less passages of reflection, the mini-essays one finds in ‘serious literary fiction’, is that Leon is obeying the first big rule of fiction: ‘Don’t tell; show’. For instance in this book, ‘The Anonymous Venetian’, which concerns what seems to be the murder of what seems to be a male transvestite prostitute, (I haven’t finished it yet and anyway don’t want to give too much away), rather than treat us to a homily or a sociological essay on conventional ‘straight’ attitudes to the wilder shores of sex, Leon has sexually orthodox Commisario Brunetti gently reproved by his wife, having dinner with a gay art critic, and actually meeting, neither as a customer nor an arresting officer but person to person, the very people he might earlier have dismissed as beyond the pale. This does the work of a homily or essay without either boring us by preaching or interrupting the flow of the novel.
So, for this and other reasons, I recommend Donna Leon’s entertaining and, yes, ‘intellectual’ Venetian stories.