To read Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti Mysteries is to fall in love with Venice, a city to which we will never have access because we are only tourists distracted by the gondolas and the rich polenta and the beautiful men. Brunetti is a native married to an aristocrat. He is a thinking man’s detective who rarely carries a gun and uses his brains to solve cases. But the reader suspects it is his wife Paola, a Henry James scholar, who has the bigger IQ. This mystery is heady — about a bisexual opera singer and her violent stalker — and a little anticlimactic as mysteries go. By the time we know who the aggressor is, the story’s interest begins to wane. The on-stage climax after a penultimate performance of “Tosca” is, well, anticlimactic. But to walk the bridges in Brunetti’s shoes, to stop in the cafes and restaurants, and get inside his head as he contemplates his wife and children is as delicious as risotto. He is a man who loves women, written by a woman of empathy and intelligence (the exquisite Donna Leon). One of the things I love the most about her books is the sense of Venetian justice — or lack thereof. While this particular novel ends with a sense of completion, Leon is unafraid to portray a society where justice can be bought, and where the do-right man has to be an expert in bureaucratic subterfuge in order to achieve a sense of balance between right and wrong.
Has Alan Furst spoiled me for Alan Furst? He remains one of my favorite authors of historical espionage. I pre-buy every new volume, although his last book, “Mission to Paris,” about a Hollywood actor spying in Europe was the least satisfying. In “Midnight in Europe,” the research is impeccable. The prose pristine. The psychological insight astute. The women characters intrigue; the protagonist wise and complicated.
Again we have a chapter from the WWII playbook, a slice that evokes the whole: a sophisticated Spanish-born lawyer living in Paris moonlights in the arms trade in service of the Spanish Republic in 1938. While we know that Franco’s fascists won this battle, and that the Nazi’s will rise even further in the coming years, Furst builds suspense in the way that small acts of courage build to impact large strategic movements — or fall by the wayside in futility.
Still, the romantic underpinnings of this particular volume — between the lawyer and a mysterious Marquesa, and a Manhattan library worker — seems particularly forced, as if even Furst had tired of creating these couplings. And that could be because I know Furst too well, and found this book a less compelling read than “The Polish Officer,” “Red Gold,” or “Night Soldiers.” Maybe I am ready for Furst to reach back to his Eric Ambler roots and go darker, quirkier, even as his elegant novels gain wider recognition within the literary mainstream.
Hoboken mother, wife, teacher and fearless fictionista Caroline Leavitt cracked the NYT Bestseller List with her ninth novel, Pictures of You. Leavitt never runs from the truth when discussing this probing novel about two runaway wives praised by Jodi Picoult as “heartbreakingly honest.”
TA: How old were you when you came out of the closet as a writer?
CL: As soon as I could hold a pen, I wrote stories. They were always about a ten year old girl named Jo whose millionaire parents were always away so poor Jo was at a boarding school with a mean headmistress. I got into those stories and my older sister would often write them with me, and we’d decide on plot. Once we decided the headmistress was going to die, and I cried and cried and couldn’t stop, and my sister finally said, “Okay! Okay! She doesn’t have to die!”
TA: What did you like to read as a kid? As a young adult?
CL: I loved the Oz books and fairy tales and the All-of-a-Kind Family books. As a young adult, I loved A High Wind in Jamaica. My sister’s boyfriend gave me a real reading education: hee brought me Richard Price’s The Wanderers, A Clockwork Orange, J. D. Salinger, and more.
TA: What was the first dirty passage you read in a book?
CL: I found my mother’s copy of Fanny Hill when I was ten and promptly told all my friends! I didn’t quite believe any of what I was reading.
TA: Every one always wants to know: How long did it take to write this novel?
CL: Four years. About 20 drafts. Seriously.
I wrote ten drafts, showed it to friends and they all had comments. When I finally gave it to my agent, she said, “I love it! Now let’s get to revising it.” She had me revise five times. Then Algonquin bought it and they said, “We love it! Now let’s revise.” But I never minded because each rewrite made the book sharper, deeper, richer. It was work I absolutely loved.
I have a deadline now: two years. I’ve been working much harder and been more panicked about meeting the deadline, too. But it forces you to work smarter, to really look at the novel as a whole.
TA: Rate on a 1-10 scale how much of your writing is done with an eye to earning money (versus for The sake of The Art or for its own sake)?
CL: Well, you’re talking to someone who never made real money on her novels up until this one! I’ve always had extraordinary reviews and sort of terrible sales, but being a NYT bestseller hasn’t really changed anything internally. I’m still the same writer grappling with a new work and having the same worries and insecurities and terrors over it.
So I’ve learned that it is the writing itself that is the reward, the drug, the great pleasure. Now that Pictures of You is a bestseller, you’d think that would change, but actually, it’s still the writing that really matters to me. [Read more…]
These mysteries have more depression chat than the Belleview psych ward. International bestselling Swedish author Ake Edwardson steps right up on the first page of the first chapter of Death Angels:
Introducing Detective Erik Winter at a funeral , Edwardson writes, “He listened to the psalms of death, his lips unmoving. He was surrounded by a circle of silence. It wasn’t the unfamiliar atmosphere that made him feel isolated. Nor was it his grief, but another kind of feeling, akin to loneliness or the void that you stare into when you’re losing your grip.”
Wow, “the void that you stare into when you’re losing your grip.” Check it. That’s so totally bummed.