Caveat: Anything and everything that is stated hereunder is greatly influenced by the writers’ love of Italian food, the idea of Venice and Commissario Guido Brunetti.
No detective in a mystery series, not Hercule Poirot with all his quirkiness and grey cells, or Peter Whimsey with his style and dash, or Miss Marple’s calm curiosity, or Lynley with all the drama in his personal life and certainly not the coldly stoic demeanour of Adam Dalgliesh can match up to Donna Leon’s appealingly normal detective, Guido Brunetti. The Commissario of Police in Venice is a man who loves his family, his meals and his classical history books with all the concerns of a regular working person and family man. Brunetti’s run-ins with his immediate superior; having to work within the confines of a corrupt system; his genuine affection for his colleagues and equally genuine concern for today’s world and the moral legacy his children will inherit; all go towards making him a man we identify and empathise with.
The main character’s appeal combined with the backdrop of Venice in all its beauty and also drawbacks that can only be experienced by a local person, give the reader an idea of the lives of normal people leading normal lives in museum like surroundings.
LL: I think more than the story, the characters or the beauty of Venice, it’s the detailed description of food in Donna Leon’s books that both of us enjoy so much. Who can forget passages which talk of leg of lamb cooked by Paola Brunetti served “with tiny potatoes, sprinkled with rosemary, zucchini trifolate, and baby carrots cooked in a sauce so sweet that Brunetti could have continued to eat them for dessert, had that not been pears baked in white wine.”
PS: I am seriously hungry now. I also remember the lunch he had with linguine and scampi,plate of sole fried with artichoke hearts and a rucola salad. It’s upsetting that most of those meals are not easily available for us to eat over here. The strange thing is that all that food in the middle of murder and crime doesn’t seem out of place.
LL: I think that is because it is so much a part of Brunetti’s thoughts. When not mulling over the latest crime in the city or the colour of the blouse worn by his boss’s secretary, he spends his time wondering what his wife is cooking for lunch or dinner.
PS: Even while on his investigative rounds, he is constantly stopping off in a restaurant or café for a snack and coffee, sometimes lunch or even just a glass of wine. The meals are all described in scrumptious detail and will consist of the salad, the antipasti or pasta and then the main course. It’s always followed by dessert and a glass of grappa (which sounds lovely but we don’t know what it tastes like).
LL: There is always wine, whether he eats at home or outside. Even in the midst of a regular working day. It’s all so exotic.
PS: I think a lot of Donna Leon’s readers may have wanted to know more about the food which resulted in her coming out with Brunetti’s Cookbook. Although why it’s not called Paola’s Cookbook is a mystery because his wife is the one putting elaborate meals on the table on a daily basis and Brunetti himself doesn’t seem to do any cooking at all whatsoever.
LL: My one grouse with the books is that his wife is too much like a goddess. We hear of her teaching at the University but whenever we see her, she is either lounging around their flat, reading Henry James or drinking wine while chatting with Brunetti, expertly handling her children and all the while effortlessly putting fabulous food on the table.
PS: You do not see her slogging over anything or grumbling about the cooking or housework. I wonder if all Italian women like that.
LL: Maybe it helps that she has such an understanding husband; even though he doesn’t do any of the cooking. They give each other so much space.
PS: The air of comfort and ease seems to be pervasive. Although there are a number of topics that each of the characters has a grouse about, no one seems to want to go to any extremes regarding them. Instead it’s the readers who sometimes end up feeling more aggrieved about what little can be done about the injustices of a system. But the characters themselves just go on with their lives, eating and drinking.
LL: I also like the way Brunetti always pauses in the midst of doing something else to appreciate some aspect or the other of Venice. The beauty of it is constantly in his thoughts.
PS: I’ve always wondered whether it is possible for a local person to appreciate or even notice a town’s beauty in the present because they can remember a time when things were a lot better. Perhaps Donna Leon, not being a native and therefore more appreciative is able to put her own perspective into Brunetti’s head.
LL: I actually find it very interesting from the point of view of a person who wants to visit Venice. The manner in which tourists are viewed as a necessary evil by the locals; the whittling away of local culture, food and local shops and their replacement by the industry catering to tourists over the years seems sad, even to the tourist.
PS: I know, the way Donna Leon describes it, Venice has become a huge city sized museum with constant renovations to its innumerable monuments and the locals seem to have resigned themselves to living with scaffolding.
LL: The Venetians’ lament that things are changing and are no longer the way they were, acquires an added dimension with global warming and the rising of the waters. These are not the things we normally consider when visiting a very touristy place. I always wanted to go, but after reading Donna Leon’s books I’m not so sure. As in, I feel I just can’t do that to the people who live there.
PS: Some of them won’t thank her for putting off tourists.
LL: Yes, but on the other hand when I think of being able to visit those authentically local restaurants she describes and eating there…
PS: And drinking Prosecco…
LL: It may be worth the minor harassment caused to the Venetians.