Homesteading

Donna Leon: Why I became an eco-detective writer

The journals interview: on the 25 th anniversary of her first crime fiction, the Commissario Brunetti author reveals how she is responding to dark times

Cultured, shrewd, honest and fit Commissario Guido Brunetti the more-or-less-ideal guy who is the hero of Donna Leons tremendously successful series of 26 detective fictions set in Venice begins her latest book Earthly Remains by faking a heart attack. Pushed beyond his limits in an interview with a high-end lawyer suspected of international crimes, and who he belief his favourite junior peer, Pucetti, was in the process of perforate, Brunetti gasps for breather, collapses on his pal and ends up on the floor.

It is a wild gesture by the policeman who is more often in elegantly attired power. But it is characteristic, too, in that chivalry and protectiveness both for the lawyers young female victim and for his younger peer are the immediate induce. Brunetti, as this novel opens, cant take any more.

I think hes get darker, hes more vexed by things, says Leon, wished to know whether she thinks her creation who has admirers ranging from Ursula Le Guin to Theresa May among millions of readers in 35 countries has evolved over hour. This year differentiates the 25 th anniversary of her first Brunetti novel, and Leon, who will be 75 in September, is full of enthusiasm for life.

Brunetti, she points out, is still the same guy: He reads, he has a sense of fun and irony, hes happily married, “hes having” nice kids and a decent life, I knew when I first wrote about him that I wanted him to be someone I like. But he is not immune to the wickedness and venality that surround him, and we have verified him investigate dozens of slaughters in plots that, with their historical, watery fixeds, sometimes experience a little bit closer to fairytale than police procedural.

His shortlived breakdown, Leon anticipates, is linked to a change in herself. Its because Ive become darker, she says. I go of happy people and am by nature a happy person, I wake up cheerful and go to bed cheerful but intellectually my eyesight is very bleak.

It turns out that the predatory lawyer and his young victim, who might have been the center of another story, are here not the phase. The moral dishonesty of the city is not what is bothering Leon. Instead, it is the dishonesty of the lagoon. The first suspicious extinctions Brunetti stumbles on, formerly he has been packed off to regain on the nearby island of SantErasmo, are those of bees. Earthly Remains already praised in the New York Times as one of her better symbols Leons coming-out as a writer of eco-detective fiction.

I dont care about politics except how it will have an impact on ecology. It seems to me that more and more people in positions of ability have decided they wont concern themselves with it; that global warming is inconvenient and so they wont talk about it. People with kids, Im astounded they arent armed. I cannot understand the passivity of people in the face of this I get agitated.

Leon voices agitated. A spry, slim figure, she talks and gags animatedly about opera, philanthropy, US and Italian politics, how Venice has changed in the decades since she moved there, her charmed life: Its enjoyable because it was nothing I ever wanted I was never driven or taught aspiration as a kid. My parents just said travel been a good education, have a decent living and have fun, which was miraculously visionary for people in 1950 s America.

But Leon, whose Spanish name is her paternal grandpas her other grandparents were Irish and German has a social conscience. Her parents, who were Catholic, taught her that to poll Republican was a mortal sin and her new novel is dedicated to the liberal US supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

It turns out they are friends, having satisfied when Leon took the magistrate and her husband Marty out to dinner in Venice as a favour, after received information that Marty was a fan.

Now she writes Ginsburg letters, because its the only place you can write things and nobody is going to know what you say. Shes all thats between us and them, she adds. I have such respect and desire for her and I would have those sympathies as an American even if I didnt well known. Shes so brave and so smart.

Donna
Donna Leon in Venice, where she invests a week every month. Photograph: AFP/ Getty Images

Leon stopped reading report online the day after Trumps inauguration, and now get her info from a variety of print informants including my bible the regional daily newspaper Il Gazzettino. She substantiated Hillary Clinton and looks startled when I request which Democrat she wanted to go up against Trump. Italian politics she regards as a decades-long stitch-up, the anti-establishment Beppe Grillo as a scapegoat.

But principally, Leon insists, politics doesnt concern her. Her overwhelming anxiety is for the environment. The victim in her second novel was a public health inspector caught up in a plot around the disposal of toxic industrial waste, but more often she used to mention topics such as recycling almost as a gag. In Earthly Remains they are the whole phase. The book requires that we recognise criminal offences against nature as just that.

Can you think of anything worse? I really think it is our only question, everything else is absolutely secondary and nearly irrelevant, she resumes. I will not say that writers have an obligation to write about this its not my region to tell people what their obligations are. But its a theme I do not resist Trump is a global warming denier. The foxes have been put in the chicken coop.

Venices vulnerability to rising sea level is an inescapable reality. Leon moved there in the 1980 s, having been blown away by its decided, architecture and history, but predominantly because Venice is where her best friend a couple who the hell is jewellers live.

Brought up in Bloomfield, New Jersey, by parents “whos been” survived the depression but missed out on college educations, Leon was teach in Iran while attempting to complete a PhD about Jane Austen when the revolution of 1978 -7 9 interrupted her surveys and their own lives. When her stems were returned to her months later, following her hasty evacuation( part of it at gunpoint, on a bus ), her newspapers were gone.

She was working as an advertising copywriter in New York when an acquaintance get in touch to ask if she wanted to visit Italy. When they arrived in Rome, “its been” desire at first sight: I was speechless with wonder and whenever I could I went back, it was an incredible realisation that these people had such lovely lives.

Leon joined the American expat fold, though it was not until she wrote her first fiction, Death at La Fenice about a world-famous conductor being poisoned with cyanide in his dressing-room that her identity became a literary one. Nowadays Henry Jamess name crops up often in Leons journals, usually when the aristocratic Paola is ignoring her husband Brunetti because she is buried in one of his novels( the climactic area of The Wings of the Dove is set in the kind of palazzo in which Paola grown up ). Brunetti, like Leon, prefers to expend his spare time with ancient Greeks and Romans. Typically, Leon explains, “they il be” reading the same thing. It is well known that her own fictions have never been translated into Italian, because she sees luminary as irksome and doesnt crave neighbourhoods to speak them.

Venices conservation and housing issues the acqua alta that realizes much of the city regularly flooded in the winter, the scandals and slows associated with building of the Mose tidal hindrance, and the overwhelming wallop of mass tourism have all along been been the backdrop to Leons fictions, as they are to life in her adopted metropolitan. But in Earthly Remains the resulting dissatisfaction has reached a new tone. In an early scene, Guido and Paola navigate the overcrowded Rialto bridge on the verge of panic.

That happened to me, says Leon. I was going down to Rialto one day, it must have been a Saturday because it was like this she folds her joints into her sides in a pantomime of being squashed and someone bumped into me somehow so that I caught my paw and I would have tripped only I couldnt fall because the crowd was so thick. Im not being hysterical when I say its unbearable.

Two years ago, she left. Though she still invests around a week every month in Venice, she now predominantly was living in Switzerland, where she has a home in Zurich and another in the mountains. A bestseller in German before she was widely known elsewhere, she credits her Swiss publisher, the family-owned Diogenes, with having stirred my career.

Leon is single, and feels this clothings her. I suppose most people earning immeasurably from wedlock in every feel, but Im too restless, she says. Her recent moves firmed up her determination to shed just as much stuff including fund as she can.

I dont want to be didactic but I think if one has been lucky fiscally, one should devote a lot of it back, because we all of us have too much, she says. Her great ardour is baroque music. She discovered her desire of Handel when she saw Alcina at Carnegie Hall in the 1970 s and, while she is vague about the scope of her financial commitments, Leon takes evident pleasure in her persona as a patron of the orchestra Il Pomo dOro. She had great and glorious merriment supporting the recordings of Handel operas with her friend, the conductor and harpsichordist Alan Curtis, and is strongly of the opinion that opera houses need to work harder to find new, younger audiences.

But she wont give up writing, she says, as long as its merriment. Lately she very much enjoyed writing a scene in which Brunetti and his dull boss Patta bond over some hand-sewn buttonholes. Im interested in why people do things. Crime in itself isnt fascinating, its just horrible. The convolutions of avarice are more interesting intellectually than ardour, because with ardour the name is the answer. What happens once you open the door to temptation and to possible, thats what fascinates me how people worsen.

Earthly Remains issued by William Heinemann. To ordering a print for 16.14( RRP 18.99) going to see bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over 10, online orderings only. Phone orderings min p& p of 1.99.

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