You always hurt the one you love, the old song says. It could serve as an anthem for crime-fiction writers, who habitually kill off the kind of people in the kind of places they care about most. Donna Leon, one of that world's biggest-selling authors, does the deed with recidivist panache. Through 12 books now, Ms. Leon, 60, has been dispatching victims in and around the dark canals of Venice, her adored adopted home, to the soundtrack of opera, which she calls her one true passion.
"Writing, by comparison, is just the day job," she said on a visit here. At night she runs an opera company, Il Complesso Barocco, largely financed by her life of crime. Although not many of her readers know this, it won't surprise them. Opera seeps into her books their plots, their atmosphere like dripping blood. (Her latest, "Uniform Justice," is out in Europe and due in the United States next month from Atlantic Monthly Press.)
Each novel comes prefaced by a few lines of Mozartean libretto usually from "Così Fan Tutte," which for some reason seems to lend itself to the mechanics of murder mystery, even though it's an opera in which no one dies. And Ms. Leon first broke into the crime world 11 years ago with "Death at La Fenice," in which the plot turns on the poisoning of a conductor in midperformance at Venice's celebrated opera house.
An Austrian conductor. Bearing a distinct resemblance to Herbert von Karajan. "It was a joke that kind of grew," Ms. Leon said. "I had a friend at the Fenice, and one day we were backstage vilifying a recently deceased tyrant of the podium in the way you do."
Would this by any chance have been Karajan?
"You said it, not me," she replies. "But he was a notorious Aryan, a serial womanizer, which gives you a clue, and above all, he was dead. So we thought what fun it would be to turn him into a crime novel, which I duly went off and wrote. But that's all it was meant to be, fun. I was lucky to be born without ambition, and I had none for this book. It sat in a drawer for a year and a half. Then I sent it off to a competition, and six months later they wrote back to say I'd won. I got a contract, and suddenly I had a purpose in life, a mission."
To hear her talk, you might think that until "Death at La Fenice," Ms. Leon had been living on the streets. Actually, she was an academic with a doctorate on Jane Austen, teaching English literature at universities in Europe and the United States (where she was born into an Italian-American family in Montclair, N.J., in 1942).
"I was in graduate school for what seemed like 120 years and went on to teaching jobs that took me God knows where," she said. "Iran, China, Saudi . . . then Italy, where I got into education programs run by and for the American military. It wasn't as bad as it sounds. Some of the kids actually wanted to learn. And ending up in Italy, I guess I made some kind of connection with something that was there all the while in my blood, my family. People tend to think the name Donna Leon is a nom de plume. It's not. It's real."
But she wasn't comfortable with university life, and she eventually decided to leave it. "I'm a recovering academic," she said through slightly gritted teeth, having turned to a literary medium remote from the one she used to teach.
"Except you'd be surprised how many academics do read murder mystery," she said. "It's like chewing gum. It makes no intellectual demands, and it's just what you want after a tough day lecturing on Henry James."
For whatever reasons, Ms. Leon, who writes in English and is translated into 19 languages, sells in bulk. By her own choice, her profile in America is modest. "My former publishers wanted to market me in a way I considered vulgar," she said, "so I put a stop to that." But she is a household name in German-speaking countries, perhaps because of that opening shot at the European conductor, but more likely because several of her books have been turned into prime-time specials for German television.
"All of which is gratifying, and I don't mean to rubbish my own work," she said. "But murder mystery is a craft, not an art. Some people go to crime conventions and deliver learned papers on the way Agatha Christie presents the character of Miss Marple, but they're out of their minds. I stay away from crime conventions."
Ms. Leon also stays away from most of the other expected haunts of crime writers, like morgues and police stations. The few points of police procedure in her books are usually invented. They're bound to be, she says, when you set a murder series in a place where murders never happen.
"Look, Venice is small, compact, protected by its geography," she replied. "Apart from the odd mugging, there's really not much crime. Corruption, bureaucratic fiddling, of course, but in Venice that's not crime. It's life."
Clearly, the thing about murder stories isn't credibility. It's predictability, setting a series in a fixed location that the reader finds attractive, with a constant cast of characters. In Ms. Leon's books, they are led by a middle-aged detective, Commissario Brunetti, and his wife (a disillusioned academic). The detective eats a lot of lunch, and Ms. Leon lingers ecstatically over the details.
In real life Ms. Leon doesn't seem to eat much, at least not in restaurants. And she hardly looks the archetypal gourmet. Small, sharp-featured and sharp-witted, she could pass as a hungry East Coast intellectual, fastidious and eccentric. She lives alone, although nearby friends have adopted her as family.
So the eating is evidently a literary device, part of the pattern of each novel.
"And pattern is what murder mysteries are all about," Ms. Leon said. "That's how you hook your readers, who like a kind of certainty. And the most attractive certainty of crime fiction is that it gives them what real life doesn't. The bad guy gets it."
But on that score, Ms. Leon doesn't always deliver. Her books can end with her detective tracking down his man only to lose him in the mire of corruption. Corruption is a leitmotif, qualifying the glowing picture she presents of Venice, and that occasionally upsets Italians. Italy, in fact, is almost the only country in which she isn't published.
"I guess I just don't do the lieto fine," she said, referring to the convention of a happy ending in Baroque opera. Like her printed prose, her conversation comes steeped in musical analogy, especially to the Baroque and above all to Handel.
Ms. Leon set up her opera company years ago with the musicologist Alan Curtis, another American exile in Italy, to tour rare works in concert format.
"It started as a one-off," Ms. Leon said. "There was a rare Handel opera, `Arminio,' that Alan thought should be performed, and it became an obsession, until eventually I said, `Do you want to talk about this, or do you want to do it?' So we did it. I rang a friend who runs a Swiss opera festival. We offered him a production. Then all we had to do was get it together. In eight months."
Mr. Curtis does the hands-on artistic and administrative work for Complesso. Ms. Leon lends her name and underwrites the costs. But more than that, she travels Europe, tracking down potential singers. And sometimes she appears in mixed words-and-music shows herself, reading appropriate excerpts from her books: the "operatic" moments in which Brunetti ponders (as he tends to) the relationship between the lyric theater and real life or simply sinks into a reverie about some favorite voice.
Predictably, Complesso has been a great success in Germany, where Ms. Leon's death-and-diva evenings count among the highlights of events like the Göttingen Handel Festival, where she recently appeared. As well as tuning crime aficionados in to opera, the company has been turning serious musicians on to crime. For one, the artistic director at Göttingen, the conductor Nicholas McGegan (who is to conduct Mozart's "Re Pastore" at the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center beginning on Tuesday), declares himself a convert to the genre and a fan.
"It's just that knowing Donna and being a conductor, I feel vulnerable," he said. "I worry that I'll open her next book and find she's done me in."