Many of us thoroughly enjoy Donna Leon's mysteries set in Venice and featuring Commissario Guida Brunetti. I've always thought Brunetti was an interesting detective because he's convincing as an Italian man (Leon is an American woman, a New Jersey girl), as a happily-married family man, and as a cop in a milieu very different from Harry Bosch's or Matthew Scudder's. Leon has lived in Venice for thirty years and My Venice and Other Essays is just what the title says it is.
Most of these non-fiction pieces are short, no more than three or four pages. Because they are not dated nor does the book contain any indication where they may have been published previously, they read almost like Leon's private musings about incidents or occasions to vent some spleen or make a point.
She can be very funny. One of the Venice essays, "Shit," describes a nuisance with Venetians and their dogs. A woman permitted her tiny white Matlese to empty his bowels directly in front of a man's front door as he happened to be standing in the window drinking his coffee. The dog finished his business, the man came out his door, the woman approached. "Excuse me, Signora, is this your dog?"
Leon writes: "She threw up her hands in offended innocence and said, 'no, of course not.' The man smiled, called to the dog in a gentle voice, and when it came, he picked it up and delicately turned it upside down, then used the fur of its back to brush up the shit. Just as carefully, he set the dog back on its fee, said a polite 'Buon giorno' to the woman and walked away."
As someone who has just written a mystery, I was particularly interested in Leon's penultimate essay, "Suggestions on Writing the Crime Novel," one of the longest in the book. It is worth the price of the book. She begins by pointing out that "the defining element between the good and the great is some inborn genius that is either present or not. Without it, painters or tennis players can be good; with it, they will be great. I see no reason why this should be any different in the world of words, though I realize how uncomfortable the idea makes most people."
Having thereby cleared the ground somewhat, she discusses several practical aspects in writing a novel: point of view; the knowledge, information, and reference of the narrator; the level of the prose; the narrator's ethical standards; the central crime; the novel's scope; and "the reader's feelings toward you as a writer, and toward your characters. The reader has got to feel sympathy for someone in the book." Without feeling sympathy for the victim or the detective or the criminal or someone, why waste a precious few hours reading the book?
Fortunately, while not all the pieces are equally engaging (but then how could they be?), My Venice and Other Essays is a way to spend a few precious hours with a fascinating and stimulating woman.