Category Archives: Donna Leon

One of the better reading weekends of the year

One of the annuals is the arrival of the new Donna Leon. That was last weekend. The next couple of days are going to be the new Philip Kerr.

The fragrant Ms Leon counts twenty-six Guido Brunetti stories. I have a quick check of that corner of the shelves: —

— hmmm … I reckon I’m missing four. Which, by inference, tells me:

  • when I went beyond borrowing from the local library,
  • when I upgraded from there paperback to the hard-back, and
  • (probably the same moment) when I began buying regularly “on line”.

My OCD ought to make me complete the set by acquiring the missing items. I’ve even gone to the extent of listing them:

  • #3: The Anonymous Venetian;
  • #4: A Venetian Reckoning;
  • #10: A Sea of Troubles;
  • #11: Wilful Behaviour.

On further thoughts, I’d reckon the last two there were once also “mine”; but have been borrowed or “fecked” over the years. Anyway: it’s pleasing to notice that I’ve shelved them in series order.

Then I have a further problem. A sense of neatness means for symmetry I need the old, smaller, paperback format (is that A-format?) for the first two, and  hardbacks, with dust-covers, for the latter two.

By the way, books are the only aspect of my life that come so orderly and ordered. But, then, in  my world, books are about the most important consideration.

Earthly Remains

The new Leon, then, follows one of the usual tropes of the detective-fiction canon. Josephine Tey put her “Alan Grant” into a hospital bed to find The Daughter of Time. That set a pattern. Michael Dibden (the only rival that Leon could possibly have for a Venetian hero — but she has gathered far more moss than he)) gave “Aurelio Zen” gut problems to — literally — put him on the beach. Now Donna Leon has “Brunetti” retreat to an island in the Lagoon to escape a minor crisis at the Questura. In each story, the “mystery” comes to the central character, rather than the more usual other way round.

This means that, in Earthly Remains, we have less of home in Calle Tiepolo, of the noble Paola and the two Brunetti children, but rather more of Brunetti’s own family background.

As always, with a Leon story, the back-end of the book acquires excitement — not from the conventional stand-off — so much as the accelerated conclusion.

I sit amazed how she pulls it off each time: the parallel story lines of a police procedural (with the enigmatic Signorina Elettra, always able to spirit a dea ex machine out of her amazing on-line resources) and a social issue. In this case, something of an old vamp on the chemical poisoning of the Venetian Lagoon.

My ritual here is an end-to-end read, often well into the early hours, in a single sitting.

And now to:

Prussian Blue

This follows immediately from the previous “Bernie Gunther” outing: The Other Side of Silence, when Somerset Maugham was a main feature (with the Burgess and Maclean duo just off-stage).

I’m just getting into Bernie’s debunk from the Riviera, and his need to escape from the grasp of his old mates, formerly of the Kripo, now of the Stasi.

I find I have to suspend disbelief about Bernie’s life-history. He was born, as we were told in March Violets, around 1898, in the trenches of the First World War. Here he is, fit and active in 1956. In between he has been house detective in the Adlon Hotel, had a brush with the KL- camps, stood too close to Reinhard Heydrich and most of the Nazi hierarchy, sniffed around the Katyn massacre, been a POW of the Russians, had brushes in post-war Berlin, pushed off to Buenos Aires and Havana. The “back-story” of this latest involves Berchtesgaden, and a body of the infamous terrace.

I remember, commuting across the North London line, opening the paperback compendium of the first three Bernie Gunther stories for the first time. So that would be 1993. Battered and split, but I still have it here. Oh, the joy of finding a new obsession!

A final thought: I see I have Leon and Kerr under separate “Categories” on this WordPress indexing. The latter as “fiction”, and the former as “literature”. I’d recant on that distinction.


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Filed under Donna Leon, fiction, Literature, Philip Kerr, reading

#Fail. Major #fail

Let’s recognise another hard truth: the once-mighty Daily Telegraph is now no more than a click-bait channel. Here we have 40 things that every man should know by the age of 40. Number 16:

There’s little room for reading fiction 

At some stage in your 30s, the disruptive voice in your head started clanging pans and yelling THEY’RE MAKING IT UP!

Which yell — D’oh! — is surely the whole point of “fiction”.

So here am I, just finished Philip Kerr, and well into Donna Leon. Bubbling on the back hob is Walter Scott (yes: I can double-task. And still drink wine at the same time). Looking forward to Alan Furst next month. And Ben Aaronovitch a month later. Any gaps will be glossed over by visits to Waterstone’s and similar joints. Failing that, there’s a dozen metres or so of shelving here to be revisited. And one day — I promise — I’ll live long enough to get through Moby Dick.

Obviously I never grew up. But that’s another story.

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Filed under Ben Aaronovitch, Daily Telegraph, Donna Leon, fiction, Literature, reading

An oaf short of an oeuvre?

— We get it, Malcolm: that’s a crude pun on “an omelette short of an oeuf”.

Last night was too betaken by Thwaites’s Wainwright‘s. So the brain is trying to catch up with Wednesday. One of the many joys of life in “old” York is the variety of pubs. Even in what, I’d reckon, is the best appointed boozer in town, the Wainwright’s runs at £3.50 a pint. Just too tempting.

The case of the missing book(s)

To be subtitled: the book of the missing case.

But, once at the keyboard — an honour and a delight, wrapped in a conundrum. Refer, instantly, to the comment appended to that previous post. It’s from the Great and the Good Christopher Fowler, and every word is worth a guinea a box (and I reckon my tin ear has been well boxed therein).

I was wrongly calculating, at first sight, that the one I am missing is The Casebook of Bryant and May, Keith Page’s comic-book version of a Fowler script. That approaches as stellar a team as Humphrey Lyttelton/George Melly/Compton Mackenzie/Barry Norman writing the Flook story-lines for Wally Fawkes to illustrate. And many of those have a lingering relevance (though the Mosley reference may pass by unnoticed):

FlookBSomething will have to be done to remedy the omission (which I now see is Brant & May 5: The White Corridor).

Officia praetermissa atque relicta

[Acts of omission: that’s yer axshul snobby Latin. Not to be deployed in Rochester or places where White Vans park.]

In the mid-summer of 2013,  Redfellow Hovel, in Norf Lunnun, decamped to Redfellow Cottage, in North Yorkshire. Over five dozen boxes (and Tesco vegetable pallets) of books were part of the shift. Another dozen were diverted to the Pert Young Piece’s flat in “edgy” Crouch End.

By the nature of these things, not every book arrived where it should have done. Hence I find I am two Le Carrés short of the full set, and I know that a couple of the Fowlers are in N8. That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

The accretion of books

Out of that came another thought.

How do book accumulate?

Obviously, it’s because certain people should never, ever be set loose in a book-shop armed with cash or card. The result is always a bag-full. I am one such person.

Beyond that, there is an “osmosis of genre”.

While I read the usual crime-review columns (the New York Times is far more regular and observant than any of the UK press), news-and-views are most easily found through one or other of the crime-fiction blogs. On the other hand, life is too short …

There are obvious “essentials”: the regular springtime with Donna Leon, a new Carl Hiaasen (not excluding the kid lit), Andrew Martin, Martin Cruz Smith, Rankin but of course, Philip Kerr (especially if Bernie Gunther is at the heart of another pickle), Alan Furst, a Jasper Fforde (if only) — and that promised Bryant & May by Fowler (due next March).

That’s marked out a fair bit of the yearly round. Yet it doesn’t fit the time available. So it’s the casual buys, often whipped off the two-for-one-and-a-half Waterstones tables that fill the gaps. That, for an example, is how I caught up with and spent a happy few days knocking off the Kyril Bonfigioli sequence.

Follow that notion through

It means that I am likely to encounter a new-to-me writer through a paperback. That ought to cause the chain reaction: hunt out the other books, keep up by buying hard-backs when published, and replacing the paperbacks if and when a second-hand hardback percolates through Oxfam.

Yes, there are drop-outs in the process: I gave up on Sue Grafton’s Alphabet series around L is for Lawless. Michael Dibdin died on me. I still trying to get on with Anne Cleeves. I started well with David Downing’s John Russell, but the last couple glare at me from the Guilt Pile. Robert Harris became a bit of a chore: An Officer and a Spy is in the Guilt Pile, unfinished. I have a habit of losing Christopher Brookmyre, half-read, in pubs — though the opening of Quite Ugly One Morning (the first Parlabane) is the teccie equivalent of Wodehouse’s Jeeves Specialrather like the royal doctor shooting the bracer into the sick prince.

Which is what I needed this grey morning.

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Filed under Ben Aaronovitch, Chris Brookmyre, Christopher Fowler, Detective fiction, Donna Leon, fiction, Ian Rankin, John le Carré, Philip Kerr

A passing thought

This one was meant to go up on New Year’s Day, however …

It’s too early after a heavy night for a pondered, even ponderous, piece.

Even so, as Malcolm stirred in the late morning light, his eye passed over the guilt pile of books read and — hence the guilt — part-read or even unread.

standingFor a start, he has to admit that December has been poor month for reading. It wasn’t so much one of those chronic reading blocks, but there was so much else happening — two major expeditions occupying three weeks of the month. Even so, there’s shame that Ian Rankin’s latest was carted to New Jersey and back, and barely opened, so is still squatting on recent life and conscience like Larkin’s Toad.

Too heavy, already

No: that’s becoming far more intense than New Year’s Day deserves. And the household rubbish needs to be decanted for the imminent arrival of the dust-cart on Wednesday morning.

Instead, prompted by that glance at the bedside books, overhung Malcolm settles for a reflection on recent gains and losses.

On the down-side he would list two disappointments:


Now Davis’s Falco series has been a long-term delight: light, bright and witty. Somehow when she turns elsewhere the magic fades. Yes, this fictionalising — and humanising — of the appalling Domitian is well-researched and well-plotted, even well-written. It somehow seems soul-less, even predictable: a trite love-story wrapped around with shenanigans and machinations.

The book reads well, but — for Malcolm — lacks any lingering of warmed satisfaction. Malcolm found himself wondering on that: why? what does one expect from a piece of disposable reading? in there is the difference between ‘writing’ and ‘literature’?

Perhaps it is that reaching the end of a book is, in itself, an achievement — both for the author and for the reader. When the ending is so predictable — one is well ahead of Gaius Vinius Clodianus, the central character with his anachronistic PTSD (Davis’s own usage), long before the denouement — that terminal satisfaction is denied. Something is missing, and so some satisfaction is lacking.

Here’s another one, to which much of that previous comment might equally apply.

The score-plus-one of the Brunetti sequence has to stand as one of the major monuments of crime-fiction. Joyce claimed that Dublin could be reconstructed from UlyssesLeon might similarly boast that the visitor’s Venice has continuing existence through those novels: Brunetti’s amblings and meanderings across and around  his native city catch the light, the glamour and the squalor, the glories and the underlying filth of La Serenissima. Ahem! Have you ever observed a diver emerge from the cess-pits beneath those well-photographed buildings?

In The Jewels of Paradise Leon attempts to construct a different protagonist in the same environment. When Maureen Corrigan was reviewing the book she hit the buttons:

It may take a few chapters beforeDonna Leon’s avid readers get over their disappointment in her latest mystery. All looks molto bene at first: Venetian setting? Check. Insider descriptions of Italian food and architecture? Check. Corrupt officials and brutal criminal bottom-feeders? Check, check.

Throughout 21 novels, Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti has investigated . . . Holy Cannoli, there’s no Commissario Brunetti in this story! A Donna Leon mystery without Brunetti, at first, feels empty, as though a mischievous god had pulled the plug on the canals.

“The Jewels of Paradise” is Leon’s first stand-alone mystery, and, while it is undeniably strange to be wandering through Venice without the protection of Brunetti’s solid presence …

Unfortunately Corrigan then allowed herself to be taken in by:

the young heroine of this novel … so winning that readers should find themselves forgiving the commissario his absence. Native Venetian Caterina Pellegrini holds a recently minted PhD in music, with a specialization in baroque opera.

Yes, but Ms Pellegrini is so thin, and the plot so trivial, the thing doesn’t quite hang together. The novel ends in a typical Leon wrap-it-up-and go away fashion. Yet, unlike the Brunettis, it seems rushed, anticlimactic … and unsatisfying. Unlike the Brunettis, Leon has allowed her deep knowledge of Italian opera to take over and stifle the plot for the less committed and less musicological. And the later Brunettis all come laden with a convincing social conscience: something missing here.

Perhaps, if Dr Leon allowed Ms Pellegrini another outing or two, we might come to love her more. At the end of The Jewels of Paradise she has been despatched to sub-arctic Russia, and — presumably — fictional oblivion.

On the other hand …

Malcolm would wish, at greater length, to celebrate two discoveries — well, to be more accurate, one discovery and a rediscovery.

The rediscovery is William Boyd.

200px-GoodManInAfricaIt has been a long while, some half of Malcolm’s adult reading life, since A Good Man in Africa. Malcolm’s edition — alas! — is not that first edition (as right). To be honest, there are a couple of previous offences to be taken into consideration:

  • that Malcolm assumed Boyd was touching, if not taking on the mantle of Evelyn Waugh;


And then came the prior publicity for the BBC TV production of an (abbreviated) Restless. Fair enough: half-a-dozen years from publication to adaptation is a decent interval; but it does require a re-reading from days-gone-by. And, in the cold light of a reappraisal it is a very, very good book:  a convoluted plot and an easy-reading (but not sanitised) writing.

1653And so to Waiting for Sunrise. OK, Mr Boyd: you did for WW2 in one book: now it’s time for WW1, and what a delight! And what an enigmatic ending! Here’s another which would provide a decent production company, with access to early twentieth-century wardrobes, another two-parter. Just wait and watch.

Above, Malcolm suggested one of the satisfactions of a novel is simply reaching the designed end. So read Waiting for Sunrise and define your own end and ending. It’s remarkably tormenting and satisfying.

On which ambiguous note, let us pass on from the guilt pile … (of which, we will doubtless hear more).

And the discovery is …

fulldarkhouseChristopher Fowler’s delicious, delightful, sparky and seductive Bryant and Webb series. Take it from the horse’s mouth: it takes something for Malcolm to scour the bookshops of North London to complete the sequence. But he did … and felt better for it.

And the pick of a very plump litter, by the narrowest of margins, is Full Dark House.

Say no more: Fowler’s website does it for one and all.


This post has done great damage to many worthy and worthwhile reads Malcolm has enjoyed in 2012. And has overlooked here.

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Filed under BBC, crime, Detective fiction, Donna Leon, Dublin., fiction, Ian Rankin, Lindsey Davis, London, William Boyd

Very silly. But improvable [Part 1a]

Oh dear.

Two rude emails already.

Let’s be clear on those points:

1.  Toni Sepeda’s Brunetti’s Venice is not a guide to Venetian boozers. It is a highly competent commentary on the wanderings of the fictional Commissario Guido Brunetti around his native city. For the record, Donna Leon’s sequence is, arguably, the best continuing novel-sequence going, crime-thriller or not.

2. A good “pub”/bar/ café/ caffe is where one wants to be, or is required to be, or conveniently is, at any moment in time or place. At this moment Malcolm would wish to be nowhere else than in Place de la Bastille. With, inevitably, someone with a squeeze-b0x, and — tonight of all nights —  La Vie en Rose:

The series on decent drinking-holes may yet be continued.

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Filed under Donna Leon, Elections, fiction, Literature, Music, politics, reading