Life Crime of
HEROES OF CRIME WRITING REVEAL THEIR INFLUENCES AND INSPIRATIONS THIS ISSUE Venice-based US author of the Commissario Brunetti series, DONNA LEON
What is the very first crime story you can ever remember reading?
It was probably Edgar Allan Poe, “The Tell-tale Heart” or “The Cask of Amontillado”, because that’s how people were introduced to the idea of the detective. He’s really good, and to think that he didn’t have predecessors makes him even more worthy of credit.
What is your all-time favourite crime novel and why?
Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement In Stone is genius from the first to the last sentence. It’s super creepy. I’ve taught it a number of times and people have a love-hate relationship [ with it]. They love it because it’s so beautifully plotted and written, but they hate it because of their helplessness. This is the genius of the book – I’ve read it four or five times, and each time I read it I still want to intervene to save those good people.
Who has been your role model?
I’ve been re-reading Ross Macdonald – God, he’s good! I realised that if there is an influence on my books, it is Macdonald. My character [ Commissario Brunetti] is very much like Lew Archer – not in terms of the family situation because he is happily married. But somewhere Archer says he likes people and likes to be of help, and I think this is as true of Brunetti as it is of Archer.
How important is Venice to your writing career?
I was in the dressing room at the opera house in Venice, La Fenice, with a friend who was a conductor, and he and his wife were talking about another conductor whom they did not like, admire or respect. We found ourselves talking about killing him there, in the dressing room. I thought that would be a great idea for a murder mystery.
I first went to Venice in ’68 or ’69 and I was lucky enough to make Venetian friends then. I love it, it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, but it has been uglified in many ways. The next book, Earthly Remains, is set almost exclusively in the laguna [ the lagoon surrounding Venice].
What would you be doing now if you weren’t an author?
I’d still be teaching English literature. I spent 30 years as a professor.
What advice would you give to your 14-year-old self?
Most of my life I’ve been pretty cheerful because I have no ambition. Luckily, my parents raised me and my brother without ambition.
What’s your favourite TV crime show, past or present?
I’ve never had a television in my life. While I was in London, I spoke to Caroline Skinner at the BBC, who will be the producer of a Brunetti TV series. They will make three and they will be shown sometime next year. The Germans have made a series that’s really not terribly faithful to the books, from what I’ve been told by people who watch them, but people love them.
As an established writer, who do you now most admire among your peers
I don’t read [ contemporary] crime. I read history so I admire Mary Beard, Tom Holland and Robert Harris – Dictator is just breathtaking.
Which fictional character do you wish you’d created?
I like Pip in Great Expectations, Lizzie Bennet in Pride And Prejudice and Philip Marlowe because he’s such a clever guy. But my star is always Lew Archer, Ross Macdonald’s character. I think he’s the most interesting.
What’s the craziest letter you’ve ever had from a fan?
I’ve never had a bad one. I have had letters telling me that, during his or her last illness, someone read my books and took great comfort from them. Those letters have moved me beyond words.
If you could commit a perfect murder, how would it be done?
Well, I’m a committed ecologist and I’m an old leftie. So were I to think about committing a crime, it would be an ecological crime. But I couldn’t do it because I know it would only be counter-productive.
The Waters Of Eternal Youth (William Heinemann) is out now.