Watching the detective: Staking out the haunts of Donna Leon's top sleuth, Guido Brunetti

One of the most famous fictional inhabitants of Venice is Donna Leon's dogged investigator Commissario Brunetti. Matthew Hoffman goes in search of La Serenissima's top sleuth and his favourite haunts

I have long used maps to follow fictional detectives around their home cites. I can recall tracing on maps of Edinburgh, the routes of Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus as he moved from Morningside to the Royal Mile, down into New Town and out to Leith searching for bars, criminals and old loves. And although I have less personal experience of Chicago than Edinburgh, I feel as though I know the intricacies of that city too from having followed Sara Paretsky's private eye, V I Warshawski, driving her beat-up car up and down the streets of her elongated, lakefront city.

But perhaps the detective most associated with a particular city in our times is Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti, whose local beat is the mysterious lagoon city of Venice. When I was first beginning to explore this maze of a place, I planned excursions to discover the locations of Brunetti's apartment, the main police station (the Questura), his favourite bars, and other sites that had caught my interest from reading about his work. I was once rewarded, while watching from a bridge, by seeing a police boat arrive with a handcuffed suspect whom they were delivering to what I took to be Brunetti's office. (I didn't realise that the real Questura had moved years previously to the unromantic precincts of the bus terminal, and the old Questura in Castello reduced to a local station.)

Now, for those who, like me, want to know Venice better, at least partially for their interest in Donna Leon's rendering of it in her novels, you can buy Toni Sepeda's invaluable guide, Brunetti's Venice: Walks Through the Novels (Heinemann £12.99), published in conjunction with the latest escapade of the Venetian sleuth. Sepeda certainly knows and understands the city but, except for the occasional helpful remark or scene-setting description, she lets the narrative voice of the novels describe the locations. In fact, her method of using excerpts from the novels ends up providing as good a guide to the characters and preoccupations of Donna Leon's novels as it does to Venice itself.

Recently I road tested (or perhaps I should say calle-tested, as the streets here are called calli) Brunetti's Venice. Toni Sepeda and I set out from the Fenice Theatre, the scene of the first of the Brunetti novels, heading for Rialto. As we passed into the popular Venetian meeting place of Campo San Luca, Sepeda pointed out that Brunetti's favourite coffee bar, Rosa Salva, is no longer there. The modern updated replacement is not bad, but one understands why Brunetti prefers to patronise the more traditional bars, where there is a copy of the local morning paper to pore over and there is the, for him, familiar buzz of Venetian dialect.

Sepeda adds that "at least the Tarantola bookstore, another favourite stop, still ... makes as little concession to the modern 'chain' epidemic ... as Brunetti makes to reading modern history". If only! Tarantola has recently disappeared too, and the proprietor of the apparel shop that has replaced it tells us that it has not moved but is out of business. All writers on Venice, and Leon and Sepeda are no exceptions, lament the city's transformation from a living city to a grand tourist locale, expensive and with poor local services and ever fewer cultural activities. The loss of this shop is but one of an ever-expanding, already long list of examples.

On a happier note, on another walk, when passing the imposing, baroque, domed church of Santa Maria della Salute, Sepeda points to a view from the steps of "the attractive houses that line the small canal opposite the side of the church with their long rows of hundreds of yellow marigolds ritually changed by their owners into banks of winter white calendula". Her familiarity with such small but telling sights lends both authority and charm to her guide book.

A little further along, Sepeda leads me past the Church of San Salvador, where she quotes Brunetti's thoughts while he tries to attend to a funeral mass, among the comings and goings of tourists. He overheard the "the buzz of their exchanged whispers as they discussed how to photograph the Titian Annunciation and the tomb of Caterina Cornaro. But during a funeral? Perhaps, if they were very, very quiet and didn't use the flash".

The last time I was in San Salvador, the Annunciation was away, on loan or being restored, and I did not know that the famous former queen of Cyprus had her tomb there. A quick visit reveals the Annunciation to be bellissima, as the caretaker puts it; but the tomb was just a slab in the floor in front of an oversized family monument.

The title of Leon's new novel, published on the same day as Brunetti's Venice, refers literally to a face, one that has been stretched by plastic surgeons into a taut, scary mask. In About Face, Brunetti first meets the owner of the face in question, Franca Marinello, at a dinner party in a Grand Canal palazzo that belongs to his wife Paola's parents. We hear much about this family, the Falliers, and its property in the Brunetti novels, mostly from Brunetti's own somewhat jaundiced point of view. The grand palazzo of Count Orazio Fallier does not exist, so Sepeda leads the reader to the nearby Ca' Rezzonico, a later work but one that has the virtue of being accessible, as it is Venice's museum of 18th-century art.

In the new novel, Guido Brunetti shows a softened regard for his father-in-law, whom he now calls simply "Orazio". Sepeda reminds us of the time when Brunetti had found it impossible to decide how to address him: "Count is too formal; Orazio impossible; Papà unthinkable." More surprisingly, the commissario seems to be succumbing to the family-first culture of Italy, as when he is asked by his father-in-law to use the resources of the police to investigate a potential business partner. Brunetti, usually so self-reflective in moral matters, doesn't hesitate to help out.

Each of the Brunetti novels explores genuine social problems, and About Face takes place during the recent scandal about the piling up of rubbish in the streets and environs of Naples. The novel refers to precise, datable events, such as the capture of Mafia leaders in April 2006 and November 2007; and the national prison amnesty of July 2006. One of the villains in About Face has been let out of jail in the indulto, a real-life event much criticised in Italy when it was followed by a crime wave.

Not surprisingly, the intersection of criminality and rubbish disposal provides the background to a murder investigation that Brunetti conducts, but the theme of plastic surgery is only tangentially connected to these issues. Although il lifting, as it is called in Italy, is a subject of countless daytime television programmes and newspaper exposés, the explanation for Franca Marinello's mask-like face surprised this reader. In Franca, a woman with a penchant for reading and discussing classics of Greek and Latin literature, whose life is blighted by her face, Donna Leon has created an original and disturbing character.

About Face, just like the other novels, exemplifies the core idea of Toni Sepeda's guide book: that the thoughts Brunetti entertains of his city and its people are what draw the reader's attention. Beyond the detective plotting, the occasional moments of physical danger, the return of favoured characters from the Questura and Brunetti's own family, what holds the books together and what brings Venice to such vivid life is Brunetti's unique way of seeing. Here, in About Face, he wakes to an unexpectedly snowy Venice:

"The bell tower of San Polo was covered, and beyond it, that of the Frari. .... [Brunetti] could see the bell tower of San Marco, its golden angel glistening in the reflected light. From some distant place, he heard the tolling of a bell, but its reverberation was transformed by the snow covering everything, and he had no idea which church it was or from what direction it was coming."

It's a side of Venice that the summer tourists would never see, yet it's another chance for Donna Leon to show her sensitivity to her adopted city's way of transforming the most ordinary phenomena into its own special brand of enchantment.

The extract: About Face, By Donna Leon (Heinemann £16.99)

"... Her mouth was set to spend the rest of its time on earth parted in a small smile ... Her eyes were crowded by her cheekbones, which swelled up on either side of her nose in taut, pink nodes the size of a kiwi fruit cut longitudinally. The nose itself started higher on her forehead than it was normal for noses to start and was strangely flat, as though someone had smoothed it with a spatula..."

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