The Commissario Brunetti novels of Donna Leon take place in Venice Italy. Although Leon now resides in a small village in Switzerland and also has a home in Zurich, she lived there for over 30 years, She was a lecturer in English literature for the University of Maryland University College – Europe (UMUC-Europe) in Italy and then worked as a professor from 1981 to 1999 at the American military base of Vicenza, Italy. Eventually, she stopped teaching and concentrated on writing and other cultural activities in the field of music. All this knowlege and experience is reflected in the backgrounsd and detail which make her books so engaging. Venice itself is as much of a main character as the Commissario.
Her Commissario Brunetti novels are written in English, and have been translated into many foreign languages, but–at Leon’s request–not into Italian. One reason for this may be the X-ray vision Leon turns on the culture and society of Italy and Venice. The crimes in the novels are often rooted in headline topics like human trafficing, art theft, illegal immigration and political corruption. Brunetti reports to the vain and ambitioous, Vice-Questore Patta, while Sergente (later Ispettore) Vianello and the all-knowing and well-connected Signorina Elettra, Patta’s secretary, assist Brunetti’ The ninth Brunetti novel, Friends in High Places, won the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger in 2000. The series is very popular in Germany, enough so German television produced 22 Commissario Brunetti episodes for broadcast
The series starts off running withDeath at La Fenice (1992) in which a difficult maestro is poisoned during a performance of La Traviata at the world renowned opera house. The mystery is so engrossing don’t even otice you have learned an amazing amount about opera, the opera house, the music world and of course Venice in the process. School learning was never so much fun. In A Venetian Reckoning (1995) aka Death and Judgment a truck crashes on one of the treacherous mountain roads in the Italian Dolomites, spilling and killing it’s cargo, Eastern European women being smuggled for the sex trade. One of my favorites is Acqua Alta (1996) aka Death in High Water which takes place during a winter storm which brings on the famous acqua alta – the flooding that periodically innundates Venice. The mystery is triggered by skulldugery in the art world and is fascinating.
There are 28 books in the series the last being published just this year.While they definitely work as stand alone novels there is a progression of events like Vianello getting promoted and characters returning which lends me to recommend reading them in order. While the crimes are individual the relationships and backstory do build over time.
Finally, Venetian life and culture are brought to us in the daily lives of Brunetti, his family and colleagues. A big part of this is eating and the meals, whether at home or in trattorie are described in loving detail. I am a big fan of Italian food but most of what I know how to make is southern Italian and so, when in 2010 Donna Leon collaborated with her friend Roberta Pianaro to create A Taste of Venice: At Table with Brunetti, also issued as Brunetti’s Cookbook, I knew I had to get a copy. It not only is a beautiful book, but I love the recipes. There are a lot of vegetarian and seafood offerings, as well as meat and pasta dishes. A very few of the ingredients may be almost unattainable for some people (the cuttlefish eggs come to mind) but most are quite common and the recipes are very straightforward, years of cooking school are not needed. These recipes are interspersed with excerpts describing dining in the books and anecdotes about cooking by co-author Roberta Pianaro and really it is an enjoyable read as well as a great cookbook.