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An American In Venice

The Rialto Bridge in Venice.
The Rialto Bridge in Venice. "Unless you go out in nature and go for a walk in the Alps, there are few places where everything you see is beautiful," Donna Leon says of her adopted home. (Copyright Richard Gunion)

She hasn't. She was a New Jersey girl whose family had Irish, German and Spanish roots. After college she wrote advertising and hated it. In 1967, an Italian American friend invited her on a trip to Italy. She spent a couple of weeks in a tiny town in the south and thought: "My God, these people are so nice! This food is so good!"

When she got to Venice, she wandered around for several days in "the equivalent of shock."

Silly to ask why, but you do. "Unless you go out in nature and go for a walk in the Alps," Leon says, "there are few places where everything you see is beautiful."

She didn't stay, though. She studied Jane Austen in grad school, then -- having been "born absolutely without ambition" and wanting nothing to do with tenure tracks -- headed out to see the world. She taught English in places like Iran, which she loved, and Saudi Arabia, which she emphatically did not. It wasn't until the early 1980s when, University of Maryland job in hand, she settled in Venice for good.

Leon is a woman who knows her mind. She hates television, won't have one in her home and once put a neighbor who played her TV too loud in one of her mysteries just so she could kill her off. She ended a relationship with her first American publisher, HarperCollins, because she hated the vulgar covers it was producing. On a more positive note, she adores the historical fiction of Patrick O'Brian.

"Ohhh -- he's God," she says when O'Brian's name comes up.

She doesn't know where her own characters come from. One time she got to a point in a book "where Brunetti was doing something and someone knocked on the door. And it was a beautiful spring day and I didn't have a clue as to who was at the door. So I turned off the computer and I went for a walk."

She walked for two hours. When she turned on her computer, in came Signorina Elettra -- the amazingly competent assistant to Brunetti's worthless, conceited boss. "She's delicious, I love her," Leon says. "Because I never know what she's going to do!"

Signorina Elettra mesmerizes men, Brunetti among them, with her beauty, her out-of-the-box problem-solving techniques and her impenetrable reserve. His wife has the antennae to pick this up, and the wisdom, in the long run, not to be threatened.

Leon is good with parent-child dynamics, too, and it makes you wonder: How can a childless, single woman write so subtly about family life?

She credits her family of origin. "We talked to one another," she says. "We read, we talked -- I think we were reasonably happy people. It wasn't until later in life that I realized how unfashionable that is."

Happy she may be, but she's not blind. She sees the real Venice sinking in a sea of tourism, with the waters rising every year.

"One way to show the way things have changed would be to take a walk up Strada Nuova," she says. A few weeks ago, Venetian friends were cataloguing changes on that street. "This used to be, and now it is . . . " they'd say, naming the shops that have disappeared. "The man who used to make homemade pasta is gone, and that's a cosmetics store. The little couple who used to sell woven things from China, they're gone, and that's an imported jewelry store, little junk jewelry. . . . The fruit store is gone, the bread store is gone, the cheese store is gone."

The new shops all cater to visitors "who walk up and down from the train station to San Marco," she says. And this is not to mention the palazzi being turned into hotels.

Brunetti is getting more pessimistic book by book, she says.

You want to talk longer, to hear more about her penetration of that invisible Venetian door. About her research technique, which is mainly to listen quietly, interjecting a question now and then, while Venetian friends talk of their Venetian lives: "Oh really? How much did the judge want? That's not a lot, is it? You got the permit, hey?" About her music, and the book she's just starting, and . . .

But the door's not open to you, and you're out of time.

Outside the bar, in the campo, you say goodbye -- then one last Donna Leon moment occurs. You look around and think: San Giovanni e Paolo! By the Rio dei Mendicanti! Isn't that where the young American's body washed up that morning in "Death in a Strange Country"? The crime scene to which Brunetti had to hustle after that phone call dragged him from sleep?

It's a place where even the commissario needed help from a more knowledgeable native -- in this case, the pilot of his police launch -- to chart the mysterious Venetian tides that had swept the American there.

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