Leon reminds us what we, the masses, like about the internet and TV criticism today: it is not always politically correct. Leon makes no attempt to please everyone. She is just telling us what she thinks about, and she doesn’t mince words. The woman who writes thoughtful police procedurals that dramatize critical issues of our time is intelligent and opinionated. Her personality is out there for us to “take it or leave it.” I like people with considered opinions.
Because Leon is able to articulate her positions, we are convinced we must take her standpoint into consideration when formulating or modifying our own view of the world. And finally, she is amusing, something that is too little valued in polite society these days. One gets the feeling she relishes matching wits: contrary viewpoints will not necessarily be shunned by her, but welcomed by a sardonic smile, a tilt of dark brows which contrast so sharply with her white bob, and the gleaming sword of wit raised as if to kiss. Be prepared to do battle all ye who enter here.
Mostly Leon’s essays are short opinions about this and that, essays that get longer as the book moves along. Her sections are intriguing: “On Venice,” “On America,” “On Music,” “On Mankind and Animals.” In “On Men” we learn what is essential to the Italian male character. We glean details of Leon’s background as an American living abroad. The essays are an excellent counterpoint to the ever longer series featuring police chief Commissario Brunetti of Venice. Brunetti is a nice man, a good father, loving husband, and a thoughtful, effective police chief in an Italian context. That is, criminals are not always brought to justice and official corruption is a way of life. Leon’s essays put these characterizations in context.
The most interesting section of essays might be the last, which Leon entitles “On Books.” One essay in this section has Leon giving her considered (and valuable) opinion on what it takes to be a successful mystery/crime writer, which decisions must be made before beginning a novel, and what level skill is required. Then she adds an essay on “the expert eye” and how critical that is to the success of a crime writer.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR radio commentator based in Italy, interviewed Leon in 2007. I was surprised to learn that Leon’s books are not translated into Italian, and will not be in her lifetime. She had been writing the Venetian Brunetti series for some time before her books were available in the United States. I’d always assumed her work was for European audiences rather than for American ones…so I was surprised to learn the country where she lives is not privy to her talent.
Donna Leon’s own blog features further links and discussions.
I want to go back and reread, or read further in the series, knowing what I do now after these essays. Delightfully piquant.
You can buy this book here: