These are times such as I never expected to see. I've written several books set during the second world war; I've listened to the stories told me by my father, who was a prisoner of war in Poland for five years. (Incidentally, he told me once that the worst thing he saw in the war was the lines of refugees, trudging along roads carrying everything they could, not knowing where they were going. I've thought about that a lot lately.) I've wanted to know why wars happen, why dictators become monsters. But it was always an exploration of the past; I never expected to see a replay in real time.
I've watched the news and read articles. But there are times when I just want to find a safe place to retreat to, to shut myself away from it all. And one of the ways to do that, I find, is to read - and perhaps paradoxically, to read detective series. They have to be the right kind. I don't want detailed descriptions of horrible ways to kill - I don't want serial killers. In fact, the murders which are usually the inciting incidents don't really interest me that much at all. It's the community of characters I like, and often the setting too: it's the way the characters build and develop over the arc of the series - the way they change. This is true of several of the series I've written about on this blog: Montalbano, the Colin Cotterill books, Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache series, and of course, the wonderful Ruth Galloway books by Elly Griffiths.
|Photo from the Sydney Morning Herald|
So recently I've returned to Donna Leon's series set in Venice, which stars Inspector Guido Brunetti. Many of the detectives who head up series are in some way flawed or damaged: think Robert Galbraith, Inspector Rebus, Simon Serailler. Not so Guido Brunetti. He is a happy family man, who has an excellent relationship with his wife, Paola (an academic who loves Henry James and is a wonderful cook) and their two children. He is kind, decent, and clever: he reads classic Greek and (I think) Roman literature as a way of relaxing.
His staff are nice people too - with the exceptions of his boss, Patta, who is vain and ambitious, and useless at catching criminals, and Lieutenant Scarpa, who is a very nasty piece of work indeed. But neither of them is a match for Signorina Elettra. She is Patta's secretary, but she's far more than that. She's very clever, very well-connected and always beautifully dressed, and she conspires with Brunetti to solve crimes despite the inept bumbling of Patta and Scarpa. She recognises the power of the internet very early on, before most of the others even know how to use a computer.
What you will not get from these books is intricate plotting. Indeed, the crime is hardly even a central feature - though it may be a useful way to explore a particular problem in Venetian/Italian society, such as corruption (quite often), politics, the treatment of immigrants, and so on. Sometimes, you feel at the end that things have not been satisfactorily resolved - which is often the case in real life, but not usually so detective novels. But there are so many other riches that perhaps this doesn't really matter too much: the Venetian setting, for instance. And the mouthwatering descriptions of food, which is tremendously important to Brunetti. It's mostly the characters, though, which are the draw.