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Open Book: Now the crumbling decadence of the Italian city of Venice has proved an inspirational setting for writers from Thomas Mann to Ian McEwan; our next guest took it one stage further and actually took up residence there. It proved a fecund move for American academic and now best selling crime novelist, Donna Leon. Her series of crime novels featuring detective Guido Brunetti, his literate, opinionated wife, Paola and sexy, information gathering secretary Signorina Elettra have been major successes. Uniform Justice, her latest, centers on a mysterious death at an elite Venetian military academy. When I spoke to her earlier this week, she explained her reasons for choosing the military setting.
Donna Leon: Ive always wanted to take a pop at the military, because I dont like the mentality of the military; because I find it... I think... as, Brunetti says in the book it's much akin to the Mafia and the Church. Its a bunch of powerful men who get to do what they want because the have the bigger guns. And, that historically has always been true, or the bigger spears. But, there seems to be a kind of amoral loyalty only to themselves, and that fascinates me.
Open Book: Your books are essentially crime thrillers, and yet this one in particular and all of them, really, to one degree or another embrace much bigger themes. This one embraces corruption, it talks about the military, it talks about one's place in this world, now. Are you dedicated to bringing these larger issues into what might otherwise might be a simplistic genre.
Donna Leon: No, dedicated is too big a word. No, I live in Italy and have for a long time so these are issues and problems that one is confronted with on a daily basis. I did one about toxic waste -- I think the second book which is now more than ten years ago. And since then, every time you open the newspapers in Italy you find -- thats an exaggeration, a self-serving exaggeration, but often the news reports toxic waste dumps all over. That trucks have just gone and dumped God knows what anywhere in Italy; and I think its true in other countries, as well. The traffic in women and now you cant walk down the street, outside of Venice, without seeing evidence of prostitution.
Open Book: The Italians dont particularly enjoy having the finger pointed at them. Is that why your books arent published in Italy?
Donna Leon: Italians dont mind having the finger pointed at them. They dont like a foreign finger pointing at them. And I think these books would be not well received, not because of what they say, because the Italians I know who have read them in some language usually say that its creepy that someone who isnt Italian sees them as they see themselves. I think that the average Italian would be offended and perhaps rightly so that a non-Italian dares to take these shots at them. Even after... Ive been out of the States for 35 years and would never return to live in the United States; but still when people who arent American say the same things I say, I dont like it. Its completely irrational. But, there it is.
Open Book: How much of is your leading character, Brunetti the detective, your own voice? You mentioned him earlier when you were talking about something you felt about the military. You said As Brunetti says in the book.
Donna Leon: No, I think many of the people in the books say things I do believe; but a lot of them say, with great conviction, things I dont believe. As an example, Brunetti has a very strong prejudice against Southerners, against Sicilians and Neapolitans. I dont have that prejudice because Im not Italian; so I cant have that prejudice. In the German press, Ive taken a lot of flack for that because they say the author displays her usual prejudice against Southern Italians. I dont have it, because I cant have it, because Im not Italian.
Open Book: Hes an unusual character for a detective, isnt he? And we think of detectives as being sort of lonely mavericks, wanton, skirting the outside of society. And yet, Brunetti is very much a part of society. He has a very strong family unit, which is very prevalent, you know, to every chapter of Uniform Justice. Why does he interest you as a character, because on some levels he seems really quite straight forward?
Donna Leon: Well, I could say, If I had decided to spend so many years with a character, I would want it to be a character that I like. But I think when I decided to write a book, I knew that it would take months -- six months, eight months, ten months to write a book. And if I were going to spend that much time, I wanted to be in the company of someone who was simpatico. He is, in a way, the summation of the qualities that I love in the Italians. And it keeps me there, year after year, and I hope will keep me there forever. That they find themselves in this chaotic society, but they try to do... to lead a decent life. And I think thats what Brunetti wants to do; he wants to lead a decent life, and see that the little rules hes made that let him lead a decent life can be shown to have, and to, perhaps, be imposed upon other people who dont lead decent lives.
Open Book: I was also interested in his lack of cynicism, because thats the other aspect that you expect to find in a detective who is faced with so much of whats awful about this world; and yet, Brunetti manages not to be. Why is that?
Donna Leon: I think because he has his family. He has a decent woman, and he has two... so far, OK kids.
Open Book: Oh dear, I sense doom for the children.
Donna Leon: No, no, no, no. No doom, maybe drugs, maybe drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll. But, no doom. I couldnt. Its very hard to kill anyone in these books. When I killed Bonsuan in the last book, Oh God, I was upset about that for a day. But I had to do it. I had to do it.
Open Book: I also fear for Brunettis moral life with his relationship with Signorina Elettra. He describes what she wearing -- men dont notice what women are wearing unless they find them attractive. Is this escalating into a crisis situation?
Donna Leon: Well, Ive thought about this a number of times, because everybody finds Signorina Elettra, as attractive as she is, elusive. So the cliche that is being worked towards in these books is a Brunetti-Elettra something. And to work against that, if anybody fools around, it would be Paola. Because everybody is expecting the other.
Open Book: Is that why you have her obsessed with Henry James? Theres already a suggestion of a kind of a searching for a kind of meaningful something.
Donna Leon: Yea, because Brunetti does not share her prime passion which seems to be for Henry James, the second man in her life.
Open Book: Do you feel yourself evolving out of your genre?
Donna Leon: No, no, you can stop right there. This is what I do.
Open Book: But youve said in the past, that you have less respect for the crime thriller than you do for other forms of novels. And, this particular book, Uniform Justice is suffused with other themes. You can almost feel it carrying a momentum of its own into something else.
Donna Leon: Dream On!
Open Book: Why would you not?
Donna Leon: No, no, no, no. Im a carpenter. Im not a violin maker, Im a carpenter.
Open Book: I suspect that inside every carpenter beats the hopeful heart of a violin maker.
Open Book: Uniform Justice is published now by William Heinemann.