Lovely decay and a watery grave

Donna Leon's series of Venetian whodunnits give a thrilling reality to the city of her dreams.
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How many times have I puzzled over the face and the few words of blurb on the book jackets of Donna Leon's nine Commissario Brunetti novels and wondered about the author? The name: English, American, Spanish? The text says she lives in Venice, but teaches nearby: Padua? Previously she has lived in "Switzerland, Iran Saudi Arabia and China": was she the daughter of US missionaries, or diplomats? That photograph reveals very little except that, like her characters, she never grows older.

It was Venice that brought me to Donna Leon. For the last few years I have gone there annually, usually in the early winter; and spent the remaining months of the year reading about the place. History, architecture, travel - I have even read about 16th-century Venetian hydrography. The best detective stories are embedded in place; and it wasn't long before I discovered Dead Lagoon by Michael Dibdin, The Titian Committee by Iain Pears and, of course, the Commissario Brunetti novels. These are the most rewarding, because the city is like another character in them: by turns mysterious and bewitching, then treacherous and faithless, yet always absorbing, always loveable.

I read Donna Leon's novels with a city map by my side, and sought out some of the familiar sites when in Venice. The Questura (the main police station) is not difficult, and I was rewarded last time by watching as a police launch pulled up with a tall, handsome, insouciant suspect in tow. A drug dealer? A pickpocket? Something more glamorous? It would make the perfect beginning to a Venetian mystery.

That moment is not dissimilar to how Donna Leon began to write her novels. She's in London to promote her latest, Friends in High Places (Heinemann, £15.99), and I find her listening to a Handel aria in a large villa-style house in Notting Hill. Music, she tells me (speaking in a mid-Atlantic, East-Coast American accent) is her ruling passion. In fact, she is going to the BBC that afternoon to record an edition of Michael Berkeley's Radio 3 programme Private Passions.

We talk about how she came to be a writer of detective stories set in Venice. "It started as a joke; most of my life has been a joke. I was in the dressing room at La Fenice, ex-La Fenice, with Gabriel Ferro, who was conducting Donizetti's La Favorita. He and his wife, both of them Sicilian, and I were chatting, and playing, and they started speaking badly about a German conductor. There was an escalation and pretty soon we were involuntarily walking around seeing where we could put the body. Because we just assumed that somebody would want to kill him. And I thought, this would really be a great opening for a murder mystery."

Although she had "never, ever, ever thought of writing a murder mystery", eight months later she had a text, and two years after that, on a friend's suggestion, she entered a contest in Japan, which it won. After that, "HarperCollins offered me a contract for two books, which I signed. And then I had to do it."

That was at the end of the Eighties. For the previous four decades or so, she had drifted through life. School in New Jersey, graduate studies in English literature (an unfinished dissertation on "the changing moral order in the universe of Jane Austen's novels"), advertising copywriting in New York; and then Europe, which she discovered by accompanying a friend on a visit to Naples. "We took the boat, we sailed on the Leonardi da Vinci, I think, and I was like Paul on the road to Damascus when I stepped off that boat." Her voice drops to a whisper as she recalls: "I couldn't have been more surprised if I had been struck by lightning. Oh, wow. Isn't this beautiful? Isn't this fabulous?"

After that, she embarked on a pattern of working in the US for six-month periods, followed by living in Italy on her savings. "Shiftless, absolutely shiftless. I've never had any ambition. It never seemed to make any sense to want to be the chairman of the department or be a professor. I just wanted to have fun."

She began to sign up for jobs around the world teaching English. The nearly-completed manuscript of her doctoral dissertation on Jane Austen was "the victim of an act of war". It was confiscated by the Iranian authorities, in 1979, at the time of Ayatollah Khomeni's revolution. She had been teaching English to illiterate Iranian village boys, so that "when they moved on, after 26 weeks, for former Vietnam Chinook and Cobra helicopter pilots to teach them to fly the things, they would have enough English to understand the instructions and read the handbooks. It was an elaborate plot to get all the petrodollars back."

You begin to see where the ingredients of the novels were nurtured. English literature - Brunetti's wife, Paola, teaches at the university of Venice. Love of Italy, and particularly Venice - "no picture, no movie, can render that beauty". And corruption - first- hand experience of the kind of global scams that fuel her plots.

Guido Brunetti and Paola, with their two children, provide an engaging contrast to the Raymond Chandler tradition of the solitary detective prowling those mean streets in pursuit of justice with only a bottle of whisky to come home to. The smells of Venetian cooking permeate the Brunetti apartment; they have caring families and loyal friends. But in the most recent books the corruption they encounter daily, in ordinary Italian life and in Brunetti's police work, has begun to erode their Sixties idealism. The plot of Friends in High Places, for example, began with Leon reading about the murder of a lawyer who had been investigating loan-sharking, followed by a report about a family who committed suicide because of debts.

I ask Donna Leon if she too has become disillusioned, and receive an impassioned declaration in reply: "I think it happened to all of us. I realised a couple of years ago that I don't hope any more. Until my fifties, I still believed that it would happen, that it would change, that human virtue would triumph and these mad politicians would come to their senses and realise that instead of building aircraft carriers they could build hospitals. That instead of planting land mines in Sierra Leone they could plant corn. But I was wrong: I was deluded and deceived... At 57, I have come to believe that if my little world of the people I love is taken care of, is happy and peaceful then that is enough. "

Small things still matter though, and I want to know just where Brunetti lives. I've pieced together clues from the books, and explored the little streets along the Grand Canal between San Silvestro and San Polo looking for a spot that fitted all the hints. To my delight and amazement, there is a real flat to be found, one that Donna Leon visited some years ago and has even inquired about buying.

We page eagerly through my copy of Calli, Campielli e Canali (the Venetian A-Z), and there it is: marked now by her pen, fittingly behind the Palazzo Donà, at bottom of the Calle del Traghetto de la Madoneta. Fiction and reality meet in this spot; in any event, what is Venice but the quintessential city of dreams?