As we move towards our 15th week of lock-down, I wouldn’t want anyone to think that my reading consisted solely of academic history and German theology. After lunch and before going to sleep I have turned the pages of a number of thrillers. I started with Colin Dexter’s Morse books. There is no doubt that [Endeavour] Morse is an engaging character, with a taste for Wagnerian opera and decent beer. He has an attractive vulnerability which shows in his wistful fondness for [usually unsuitable] women, particularly Sister Janet. And Dexter is thoroughly familiar with Oxford streets and Oxford pubs. When his first book Last Bus to Woodstock came out in the 1970s we were living in Woodstock, which was an added attraction. But on looking at the books again I feel that from, say, Mystery of the Third Mile [published in 1983], Dexter’s plotting becomes over-complicated [Dexter was of course a very high class crossword puzzler], and it can feel as if the characters are taking second place to the demands of the increasingly ingenious plot.
Donna Leon’s Venice
On the other hand, since we shan’t be going to Venice, nor anywhere else, in the foreseeable future I’ve been enjoying turning the pages of Donna Leon’s early Brunetti books. Donna Leon is an American who used to teach English to university students in Venice, and there are now [I think] some twenty-nine books that feature the Venetian detective Guido Brunetti, He is a Commisario working out of the Questura on the Fondamenta di San Lorenzo, at the western end of the sestiere Castello, just across from San Giorgio dei Greci. [The police have now moved to the Piazzale Roma.]
Brunetti’s boss is the Vice-Questore Patta, a pretentious bureaucrat from the south, given to arriving late and early lunches. Patta’s glamorous secretary, Signorina Elettra, who formerly worked for the Bank of Italy, is a genius at digging stuff out of her computer, often with the help of a network of unidentified contacts. Brunetti’s other partner is the dependable and honourable Vianello, for long a Sergeant but finally promoted to Ispettore. The burly Vianello develops into an accomplished computer hacker and a concerned critic of environmental pollution.
A Noble Radiance, the 7th Brunetti book, published in 1999, starts with the discovery of a badly decomposed corpse in a small village at the foot of the Dolomites. A valuable signet ring leads Brunetti to the heart of aristocratic Venice, to a family still grieving the loss of their abducted son. Fatal Remedies, published in 2000, starts with an early morning phone call and a pre-dawn act of vandalism. Then Brunetti discovers that the perpetrator is not a common criminal, but none other than Paola Brunetti, his wife. Apart from the domestic crisis the book embraces sex tourism, a daring robbery with possible Mafia connections, and a suspicious death. The unheralded visit of a young bureaucrat to the Brunetti apartment is the starting point of Friends in High Places, also first published in 2000. The young man is investigating the lack of formal approval for building work done many years earlier. But when the man rings Brunetti at work, obviously scared, and then is found dead after a fall from scaffolding, it is clear that something more serious is going on. The murder of two clam fishermen on Pellestrina, an island in the lagoon, is the starting point of A Sea of Troubles, first published in 2001. The highly knit community are suspicious of all outsiders especially the police. But when the boss’s PA, Signorina Elettra, volunteers to visit the island where she has relatives, and then when a woman’s body is washed up, Brunetti is in a very difficult position. Torn between his duty to investigate the murders and his not entirely straightforward feelings for his attractive colleague. Most of these books won CWA Macallan awards. And there are other twenty or so books to follow !
The police cases, usually a murder or two, are cross-cut with Brunetti’s home life in San Polo. He has been married to the lovely Paola for twenty plus years. She teaches English Literature at the university, and is a devotee of Henry James; the other man in their marriage. There are two teenage children; Raffi, now taken up with playing his stereo very loudly and with his girl-friend, and his younger sister Chiara, given to a sequence of touching enthusiasms. Paola cooks mouth-watering meals for the family, lunchtime and evening; invariably a pasta dish and a main course, and a sliver of cheese and a pudding. If the children can be persuaded to do the dishes, Guido and Paola then recline with a small grappa or a Calvados. Guido sometimes resents the presence of Henry James in their marriage. Paola is sometimes suspicions of Guido’s closeness to Signorina Elettra.
Why do I appreciate Donna Leon so much ? It is partly her delight in the city surroundings in all weathers, ranging from clear spring mornings to the oppressive heat of summer and on to the damp and cold winter days. And it is partly the idealism of both Guido and his wife, as they search in different ways for a better world. In marked contrast to the world around them. Brunetti’s boss is lazy and self-seeking. Paola’s colleagues are vain and career minded. Donna Leon takes for granted that the great bulk of Italian society is riddled with corruption; greedy politicians, dysfunctional families, corrupt bureaucrats and lawyers, dishonest businessmen, all happy to cut deals in dangerous chemicals and out-of-date drugs if there is a profit to be made.
For me, it was love at first sight. I first arrived in Venice in the summer of 1963, hitchhiking from Lljubliana on the way back from Istanbul, and stayed for a few nights at the splendidly situated youth hostel on Giudecca.
I knew there were canals. But I hadn’t realised that there were only canals. No streets and no cars. What did I do on that first visit ? I bought a guide-book. And I made a dutiful visit to St Mark’s. And I walked a lot. And I peered at the vast Tintorettos in Scuola San Rocco. And I played chess on Giudecca with a man I met in the hostel. And then I re-met some friends from the hostel in Istanbul, three students from the Edinburgh School of Art, and I accepted their offer of a lift to Ravenna to look at the mosaics at San Vitale. I’ve never been back to Ravenna since. But I’ve been to Venice many times.
In the late 1960s I was there in August, very hot and very crowded. We were camping at the Lido di Jesolo, all tourists and campsites and carry-out pizzas. But there are boats to Venice, and you approach San Marco from the sea. The extraordinary skyline emerges from the water in the way described on the opening pages of James Morris’s Venice. Then Susie and I were there in the summer of 1975, again on the way back from Yugoslavia. This time we stayed in a dark pink washed hotel on the Grand Canal, a hundred yards or so from Rialto Bridge. It was a lot cheaper then than it is now. One afternoon we made a first boat trip across the lagoon to Torcello, to the mysterious cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, part Byzantine, part Gothic, with its striking mosaic of the Teotoca Madonna, the God-Bearer. And afterwards to Burano, strangely deserted, where we met some small children and took their photos.
After that there was a long gap. Susie and I were there again thirty years later. This time we stayed in a hotel in Piazza San Margherita, the biggest open space on Dorsoduro. The hotel was small, and the walls so thin that you could hear both parties to the telephone conversation in the adjoining room. Breakfast, not a very good breakfast, was in a cafe across the piazza. But there was a good, busy, student-filled restaurant close by.
Then for a few years I went there by myself for a few days in November. Once I took a square-wheeled night train from Dijon. Otherwise I flew there, from Lyon or from Edinburgh, and caught the airport boat direct to Rialto. Each time I stayed in the Hotel Da Bruno, a few minutes walk from Rialto. It was generally quiet in November. The staff lent me an umbrella when it was raining, which it often was. And offered me gum-boots if there was flooding because of the Acqua Alta. On each visit I returned to Torcello, very old and very lonely, the tower swathed in scaffolding, the island largely inhabited by a myriad of cats. “Mother and daughter”, commented Ruskin from the top of the campanile, “you behold them both in their widowhood – Torcello and Venice”.
Afterwards I hopped back to Burano on the boat, walked over the bridge and ate several times at a very quiet trattoria near the boat stop on Mazzorbo, an island that deals in vegetables rather than tourists. In Venice itself I just visited a lot of churches. I would make a trip to San Pietro i Castello at the eastern end of the city, with its mysterious Bishop’s Throne. Legend associates it with St Peter and Antioch, but the inscription on it is from the Koran. The long ignored church is supported by the citizens of Los Angeles. I discovered the tiny, jewel-like S Maria dei Miracoli, a few minutes walk behind the hotel. I visited San Giovanni in Bragora, where Antonio Vivaldi was baptised. I discovered the gloomy, candle-lit church of San Nicolo dei Mendicoli with its poorly-lit, complex tableau. And I once only got into San Giovanni Elemosinario, close to the Rialto bridge, with the mysterious, undated carving of the Nativity scene and a devout ox licking the face of the baby Jesus. Ever since the church has been shrouded in scaffolding.
Eating can be a problem. It is often said that the unending procession of tourists has made it difficult to eat well in Venice. Osteria La Zucca is an excellent mainly vegetarian restaurant near San Giacomo, but you need to be prepared to book in advance. On a very cold and wet November day I was greatly cheered by a restaurant on Giudecca, who produced half a litre of sharp white wine and a big bowl of fried courgette as a starter followed by a baked whole fish with boiled potatoes. Possibly a gilt-head bream. It was excellent. Also on the Giudecca is the cafe in the former Boat Builders’ Canteen, which seems to have been there for ever, and which serves student-like meals to crowds of students at student-like prices.
I suspect that both my readers will know Venice. If not, then I would urge you to go, preferably out of season when there might be fewer tourists. And before those behemoth cruise liners return. Before you go read James Morris’s Venice [I know she is now Jan Morris, but he was James Morris on my original copy of the book], incomparably the best book on Venice ever written. And maybe have a look too at Toni Sepeda’s Brunetti’s Venice: walks through the novels. The book offers a dozen walks through the city, most lasting an hour or two, all referenced to the first sixteen Brunetti books. I’ve only done one of them, from the Questura to the quiet and lonely Celestia boat-stop. It must be time for me to go again.