'Transient Desires' by Donna Leon (published by William Heinemann)
Donna Leon's famous series about Commissario Guido Brunetti reached its landmark 30th story this year. It is hauntingly called Transient Desires
and is probably the most reflective one of all. Donna Leon has fans all over the world who know all her books – from the first Brunetti story, Death at La Fenice,
through The Anonymous Venetian
, Friends in High Places
, and Through a Glass Darkly
, to the later ones – Beastly Things
, The Waters of Eternal Youth
, and Trace Elements
Like Montalbano tours in Sicily, Morse tours in Oxford, Robicheaux tours in New Orleans and Rebus tours in Edinburgh, fans can go on literary journeys through Brunetti's Venice, stand at his favourite view and have a coffee at his favourite bar. Donna Leon herself has lived in Venice for over 30 years after working all round the world as a teacher and translator.
She is right up there at the top of the list of great crime writers, along with Patricia Highsmith, Sara Paretsky, Raymond Chandler and Georges Simenon. Close behind come the likes of Camilla Låckberg, Philip Kerr's 'Gunther' series, Carl Hiaasen, Martin Cruz Smith, Denise Mina, Walter Mosley and Elmore Leonard, Kathy Reichs and Val McDermid. Let alone Golden Age writers like Agatha Christie, spooks, thrillers and comic crime.
They say that millions of fans cannot be wrong so what is it about the Brunetti books that draws readers in to read and re-read stories about him? There is Venice of course – serene, magnificent, unique, endangered, a place to see before we die. There are the plots – solving crime, Venetian corruption, thoughtful storylines (contaminated water, illegal surrogacy, people trafficking, bent officials) – resolved with a twist, leaving an urge for more.
And there is Brunetti himself – happy in his skin, good with people, an intuitive yet devious interrogator. His keen-eyed cynicism about police procedures, bureaucrats and politicians fed regularly by reading classical authors like Tacitus, and reflecting on what they tell him about the honesty of human beings and the elusiveness of the truth. Around him, Donna Leon has created more than a few memorably drawn women – his brilliant academic wife Paola, his Machiavellian colleague Claudia Griffoni, and the mercurial station secretary Elletra.
With original storylines and strong characterisation, Donna Leon has created a truly fine crime series. Yet successful crime series last over a long time only if the main character or characters deserve it. Ingenious plotting and arrestingly plausible detail are important, but the real magnetism lies in our feelings about the main man or woman, and their key relationships – Sherlock Holmes or Maigret, V I Warshawski or Brother Cadfael, Wallander or Sam Spade. This is how readers respond to Guido Brunetti. In Transient Desires
, more than before, we see into his very soul.
Within the framework of an original and topical plot – that of people trafficking in the seas around Venice – the story ducks in and out of Brunetti's own reflections about himself, his job, and his city. For him, Venice is far from what the tourist sees: it is a beautiful place threatened by decay, floods, crime, unemployment, and the heavy impact of cruise ships.
He thinks 'there is no longer anything to say, add, proclaim, or hope' about tourism: for the city it is a Faustian pact – both survival and destruction, above all at times of pandemic. It is also a place where, beneath the skin, corruption and cruelty flourish. In Transient Desires
, the trafficking is the business of the Nigerian mafia. He reaches for tramezzini or a glass of Pinot Grigio partly to ease the pain.
The novel takes us into Brunetti's thoughts again and again. His mind on the horrors of abduction and inhumanity, he holds his tongue when his daughter complains about not being able to use mobile phones at school – they're treating us like slaves, she says, and inside his blood boils. He interviews two young men accused of a criminal accident at sea, feels parental towards their naivety and, in meeting them, reassesses his own ideas about being gay and the male macho image. His work relationship with his Neapolitan colleague Claudia Griffoni probes into the prejudice northern Italians feel about the south, confronting him with his own shame.
He sees himself as a man getting older, among contemporaries who 'live out their middle-class lives: going to the office, travelling, acquiring'. He wryly remembers his own poor background, he asks himself whether a life in the police has done any good or made Venice any better, he tries vainly to balance what he seems asked to believe by politicians and the media against what he believes is the moral truths of things.
Never at any time does Donna Leon get heavy about all this, and never do readers feel that her stories are moral allegories in disguise. The famous stereotype about crime and detective novels is that all they are is a conflict between good and bad in one form or another, and that detectives (police or private eyes or forensic pathologists) are knights errant cleaning the mean streets of crime.
Yet we know from crime writers from Chandler and Hammett onwards that detectives themselves are often flawed and reflective, and, like Wallander and Montalbano and Father Brown, Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen or Barbara Nadel's Ikmen, they often deal with external moral challenges that impinge upon conscience and character, often their own. Typically, when balancing legal justice with moral justice, often dealing with shades of grey. Italian crime fiction bravely faces up to decadence, and, oblique in Camilleri and head on in Carofiglio and Scascia, the dangers from the mafia.
In Transient Desires
, Donna Leon has written a story that will delight her readers as much as any of the others. It adds icing to the cake by revealing – even more than before – his sensitive awareness of the moral ambiguity of crime-solving and of doing what he does, and of being who he is as a dedicated professional, a husband and a father, and a middle-aged man approaching the end of his working life. I could not have been anything else, he reflects: we tend to paint ourselves into corners. Brunetti is a detective for our times.
No doubt Donna Leon will slow down his story life – because detectives in fiction do not need to age chronologically as we do ourselves (think Stephanie Plum or Lord Peter Wimsey) – but she is clearly interested now in how Brunetti deals with life itself, and what he thinks about it all now that he is older. Looking back over the whole series, we see a growing emphasis in her Brunetti stories about the effects of crime, exploitation and neglect – for example on the environment, centred understandably around Venice itself but stretching wider still, and on the cruelty of human beings to each other.
Her concern for preserving such a place of beauty, pilgrimage and history as Venice is by no means sentimental or polemical. These are stories to make readers think hard, and this is not always the case with popular genre-based fiction where fast-moving action and gruesome body-counts help us flick the pages.
With the 30th novel in the series, it is a good time for us to take stock of Donna Leon's fine achievement. She is clearly doing that herself and it shows in her writing. I am one of many readers longing to read the next one – nothing transient about her appeal. The series may even outlast Venice itself.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is an honorary chaplain at the University of Aberdeen and an accompanist at the North East Scotland Music School