Leon, Donna 1942–

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Leon, Donna 1942–

PERSONAL:

Born September 28, 1942, in NJ. Hobbies and other interests: Baroque opera.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Venice, Italy.

CAREER:

Writer. Former crime reviewer for the Sunday Times, London, England; professor of English literature, Italy; taught at American military bases in Italy. Founder of Il Complesso Barocco (opera company), Venice, Italy. Worked as a teacher in Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, England, Iran, and China.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Japan's Suntory Prize for best suspense novel, for Death at la Fenice; Macallan Silver Dagger for Fiction, Crime Writers' Association, for Friends in High Places.

WRITINGS:

"GUIDO BRUNETTI" MYSTERY SERIES

Death at La Fenice, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1992.

Death in a Strange Country, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1993.

Dressed for Death, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1994, published as The Anonymous Venetian, Macmillan (London, England), 1994, Penguin (New York, NY), 2005.

Death and Judgment, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1995, published as A Venetian Reckoning, Macmillan (London, England), 1995.

Acqua Alta, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1996.

The Death of Faith, Macmillan (London, England), 1997, published as Quietly in Their Sleep, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1998.

A Noble Radiance, Heinemann (London, England), 1998, Penguin (New York, NY), 2003.

Fatal Remedies, Heinemann (London, England), 1999.

Friends in High Places, Heinemann (London, England), 2000.

A Sea of Troubles, Heinemann (London, England), 2001.

Wilful Behavior, Heinemann (London, England), 2002.

Uniform Justice, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 2003.

Doctored Evidence, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 2004.

Blood from a Stone, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 2005.

Through a Glass Darkly, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 2006.

Suffer the Little Children, Heinemann (London, England), 2007.

The Girl of His Dreams, Heinemann (London, England), 2008.

Writer of the libretto for Donna Galliana (comic opera), produced in Innsbruck Austria; producer of a series of recordings of operas by Handel.

ADAPTATIONS:

Novels adapted for audio include Doctored Evidence (unabridged; seven CDs), 2004, and Blood from a Stone (unabridged; seven CDs), 2005, both Sound Library: BBC Audiobooks America; a miniseries has been produced for German television featuring many of the books in the "Guido Brunetti" series.

SIDELIGHTS:

An American living in Venice, Donna Leon is more widely known in Europe than in the United States for her best-selling series of mysteries featuring Guido Brunetti, vice commissario of the Venice police. Brunetti is devoted to his family, which consists of two demanding teenagers and his wife Paola, whose passion is reading Henry James and who is the daughter of an Italian aristocrat. Brunetti's personality is complex. Kindhearted but intelligent with a razorsharp wit, he has compassionate insights into the heart of Venice and the soul of its people. His home life is incorporated into the stories, and Venice itself is a character in each of Leon's fictional works.

In Death at La Fenice, Brunetti is summoned to the scene when the dead body of German musical conductor Helmut Wellauer is discovered in his dressing room between acts of a performance of La Traviata. The cause of his death is ultimately found to be cyanide poisoning. The conductor's aloof young wife is under suspicion, as are many in the music industry who were offended by his homophobia—including the lead singer, whose lesbian lover is a wealthy American archaeologist named Brett Lynch. While investigating Wellauer's background, Brunetti discovers the conductor's Nazi sympathies and three singing sisters from prewar days: one living in poverty, one no longer alive, and one who has vanished. Brunetti's wife and her wealthy parents lend a hand in solving the case, and Brunetti prevails over his dictatorial boss and his own clunky subordinates. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called this first book of the series "lively."

In Death in a Strange Country, the victim is an American soldier found floating in one of Venice's canals. Brunetti's boss and military authorities at the soldier's base shrug off the death as random violence, and then claim his superior officer's subsequent death is an accident. Three valuable paintings are stolen, the Mafia shows up, and so does toxic waste, not to mention deep government corruption. Brunetti's father-in-law plays a role, along with working-class Venice. Spectator reviewer Harriet Waugh criticized Leon for overburdening the plot, which resulted in "glaring holes in the solution," and a Publishers Weekly contributor faulted "predictable twists" in the plot.

A paunchy, middle-aged bank manager is the victim in Dressed for Death, found dead in a tacky red dress, gossamer undergarments, and shiny red shoes, his face bruised and unrecognizable. Commissario Patta chalks it up as a sorry ending for a transvestite prostitute, but Vice Commissario Brunetti remains unconvinced. Venice is a major presence with its sultry August weather, the stench of the canals, and the corruption. Brunetti diligently follows leads, even though they point to the powerful director of a religious charity. Times Literary Supplement contributor Julian Symons called the novel a "finely organized, stylishly told story."

In the fourth novel of the series, Death and Judgment, an influential lawyer is murdered on a train and an accountant/employee dies shortly thereafter. The police say the lawyer's demise was due to a bungled robbery, but Brunetti thinks otherwise. With the help of his boss's computer whiz secretary, a judge who owes him one, his sergeant's gossipy wife, and even his own wife and his daughter, the detective cracks an international drug and prostitution ring operated by some of Venice's finest citizens. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called the novel an "intriguing and horrifying tale." Death and Judgment, according to a Kirkus Reviews writer, combines Leon's "strengths: endearing detective, jaundiced social pathology, and a paranoid eye for plotting on a grand scale."

Acqua Alta brings back two characters from Leon's first novel, Death at La Fenice. They are Brett Lynch, the American archaeologist, and her lover, Flavia Petrelli. In Acqua Alta Brunetti probes a case of stolen antiquities. When Lynch discovers that the Chinese ceramics on display in Venice are forgeries, she is attacked, and the museum's curator is killed. "Place and character," commented Booklist reviewer Bill Ott, "meld to produce an atmosphere that teems with life beneath the surface." Ott praised Leon for "effectively" blending the fine points of art theft with details of Brunetti's family life and of Brett and Flavia's relationship. A Publishers Weekly reviewer found that Brunetti's "moral anger pervades and gives substance to this mystery."

In Quietly in Their Sleep, a nun leaves her order and its nursing home to seek Brunetti's help when she suspects that some of the patients who have left their money to the home are quietly being murdered. The investigation leads to the closed world of a powerful and secret church organization known as Opus Dei and to the very public scandal caused by a local parish priest. At the novel's conclusion, matters are only partly resolved.

A Publishers Weekly contributor called A Noble Radiance "a gripping intellectual mystery." This story revolves around an aristocratic family that profited by betraying Venetian Jews during World War II. Now the body of one of its members, missing for two years, has been unearthed, and his murder may have been committed to pass his inheritance on to the next in line. In Fatal Remedies, Paola becomes a vandal as she protests a travel agency that is promoting sex tours to the Far East. Friends in High Places finds Brunetti investigating the death of a bureaucrat in a story that involves drug dealing and corruption.

A Sea of Troubles is set on the island of Pellestrina, where a fishing village is distraught over the death of two men, a father and son. Because the fishermen consider the police their enemy, Brunetti sends police secretary Signorina Elettra to visit her family on the island, hoping that they will open up to her. In reviewing the novel in the Spectator, Harriet Waugh commented that the story is "handled with a lighter touch" than in other books in the series and felt that the relationships, including friendship and love, "give the book a warm glow."

Brunetti is approached in Wilful Behavior by one of Paola's students who is seeking a pardon for a crime committed years ago by her grandfather. When the student is found stabbed to death, he is no longer her advisor but the investigator of her murder. In Uniform Justice, Brunetti compares a corrupt military with the mafia when an attempt is made to rule the hanging death of a young cadet at a military academy as a suicide. The boy's father, one of the few honest members of the Italian parliament, recently resigned and refuses to cooperate with the investigation. In reviewing this book in Library Journal, Wilda Williams described Leon as a "wonderful writer" and her books as "elegant Venetian puzzles." In Doctored Evidence, Brunetti believes in the innocence of a Romanian housekeeper accused of killing her employer.

Reviewing Blood from a Stone in Booklist, Ott noted that Brunetti is possessed of wit and shrewdness, but felt that his main appeal is that he represents everyman, caught up by bureaucracy, managed by bosses of inferior intellect and character, and lacking the power to do what he knows is right. The killing of an illegal alien from Africa who was dealing in fake designer handbags and gems leads to a Brunetti family discussion about race and class and international ramifications. Library Journal contributor Michele Leber described this installment as being "another winner."

Through a Glass Darkly includes maps that enable the reader to follow the trail along with Brunetti as he investigates allegations being made on the island of Murano. Marco, who is married to the daughter of the owner of a glass factory on the island, is arrested for protesting environmental dumping at the factory, and his father-in-law suspects him of attempting to take over the company by violent means. Spectator reviewer Michael Vestey praised the characters of Brunetti and his family and concluded: "The star of the book though, is, as usual, the slightly seedy magnificence of Venice and all its complexities."

Suffer the Little Children finds Guido Brunetti tracking down an illegal adoption operation, an organization he is initially led to by a case of police brutality. The incident begins when a doctor adopts an Albanian baby under suspicious circumstances, but when the police, led by Brunetti, go to take the child, the doctor is injured. Brunetti follows the illegal adoption trail to a hospital, and from there to number of pharmacists and doctors who are involved in their own illegal activities—a scam that has them billing for services not rendered, the two cases eventually twining together. Ultimately, Brunetti sets up a sting, posing with Elettra Zorzi, his boss's assistant, as a childless couple desperate for a baby, yet unable to conceive. Bill Ott, in a review for Booklist, commented on the lack of a body count in the book, noting that "the Brunetti series isn't about crime as much as it is about more subtle human failings, and there are plenty of those here." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly praised Leon for avoiding pat resolutions to her mysteries in favor of those that are "wise and inevitable while still being unsettling." Clea Simon, writing for the Boston Globe Online Web site, concluded that "fans of Donna Leon may have to face the idea that she is giving over her essentially cozy books for harder, darker stories."

Leon responded to questions raised by an interviewer for the Italian-mysteries.com Web site. She commented on the character of Elettra, a civil servant rather than a law enforcement officer, who she said is typical of strong Italian women. She noted that although Paola is a university professor, she, like most Italian professional women, does not network, since Italians tend to have a larger circle of friends and family upon which to rely. Leon said that Brunetti's children will remain teenagers, that time does not pass from story to story, and that Brunetti's home is based on an actual house.

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, June 1, 1994, Stuart Miller, review of Dressed for Death, p. 1774; May 15, 1995, Emily Melton, review of Death and Judgment, p. 1634; October 1, 1996, Bill Ott, review of Acqua Alta, p. 325; May 1, 2006, Bill Ott, review of Blood from a Stone, p. 10; February 1, 2007, Bill Ott, review of Suffer the Little Children, p. 5.

Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 1992, review of Death at La Fenice, p. 639; April 15, 1995, review of Death and Judgment, p. 511; April 15, 2006, review of Through a Glass Darkly, p. 382.

Kliatt, September, 2006, Francine Levitov, review of Through a Glass Darkly, p. 54.

Library Journal, July, 2003, Wilda Williams, review of Uniform Justice, p. 131; March 1, 2004, Wilda Williams, review of Doctored Evidence, p. 112; April 1, 2005, Michele Leber, review of Blood from a Stone, p. 76.

Publishers Weekly, June 1, 1992, review of Death at La Fenice, p. 55; June 28, 1993, review of Death in a Strange Country, p. 60; May 16, 1994, review of Dressed for Death, p. 53; April 10, 1995, review of Death and Judgment, p. 55; September 2, 1996, review of Acqua Alta, p. 117; August 25, 2003, review of A Noble Radiance, p. 45; March 26, 2007, review of Suffer the Little Children, p. 68.

Spectator, November 13, 1993, Harriet Waugh, review of Death in a Strange Country, p. 37; March 24, 2001, Harriet Waugh, review of A Sea of Troubles, p. 51; April 15, 2006, Michael Vestey, review of Through a Glass Darkly.

Times Literary Supplement, June 24, 1994, Julian Symons, review of Dressed for Death, p. 24.

ONLINE

BooksFactory.com, http://www.booksfactory.com/ (October 16, 2006), biography of Leon.

Boston Globe Online, http://www.boston.com/ (June 11, 2007), Clea Simon, review of Suffer the Little Children.

Grove Atlantic Web site, http://www.groveatlantic.com/ (October 16, 2006), brief biography.

Italian-mysteries.com, http://italian-mysteries.com/ (October 16, 2006), brief biography, interview with Leon.

Mystery Readers Journal, http://www.mysteryreaders.org/ (October 16, 2006), Donna Leon, autobiographical entry.

New Zealand Herald Online, http://www.nzherald.co.nz/ (April 11, 2005), John Freeman, interview with Leon.

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Leon, Donna 1942–

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