Venetian minds

THERE REALLY ISN'T THAT MUCH death in Venice these days, or at least not the violent kind. A murder a year, on average, which is only just less than Donna Leon has managed to rack up in the 16 years since her cultivated, incorruptible Commissario Brunetti started to tackle la Serenissima's fictional crime wave. "Really, it's a ridiculously safe place," she says. "I can walk anywhere at two o'clock in the morning, which is almost unheard-of for a city today."

That's not, of course, what her fans want to hear. They want to follow the man The Scotsman's crime reviewer, Sir Gerald Kaufman, calls "the best of all current police detectives" round the world's most beautiful city, working out who tipped the latest corpse into the Grand Canal and watching him fight his corner with colleagues within the Questura. They want to see a clash with the forces of evil where one would least expect it – amid so much gorgeous architecture, spectacular art and firmly held family values. And for 16 books, Donna Leon has not disappointed them.

Her latest, The Girl of His Dreams, won't either. In it, both the victims and the criminals are the gypsy children preying not just on the 16 million tourists who flood into the city each year but its 60,000 year-round inhabitants. Brunetti's boss and the social workers don't like to admit the scale of the problem and how it has worsened since the implosion of Yugoslavia forced more gypsies across the Italian border in search of easy pickings. Forever arrested and released because they're under age, the gypsy children (Zingari, Rom, Sinti or Nomadi, as they are described in police reports) are also, she strongly hints, unnecessarily protected by political correctness.

The main case here is that of a young gypsy girl who appears to have fallen to her death from the window of a house she was robbing. But was she pushed? Investigations by Brunetti and his deputy Vianello lead them to the girl's surly, uncommunicative family at a camp on the mainland. Vianello says he cannot feel any sympathy with them, and that he hates "always having to be careful to express the right sympathies ... It's almost as if we were living in one of those Eastern European countries, years ago, where you had one way to speak publicly and a different way to speak honestly."

All this, I suggest to Donna Leon, is dangerously un-PC. "Why not?" she exclaims. "I think PC is nonsense!" But suppose you said such things about blacks? "I wouldn't. Italians don't have bad sentiments about blacks; they have a certain amount of sympathy for the Africans because they don't let their children go robbing ... Whereas with the gypsies ... In 2008, they are (and here her modulated New Jersey voice slows down for emphasis) Raising. Their. Children. To. Be. Illiterate. In the third millennium. In a western culture. It just cuts off so many possibilities for them."

With Leon, you feel, it's culture, not race or social taboos, that is the issue. It's culture that brought her to Venice, after working as an academic and teacher in the US, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China. It's culture that makes her stay, that gives meaning to her life. Her own sensibilities – her love of Austen, obsession with Handel, her tastes in architecture, her lack of a television, even (as we'll see) her politics – owe more to the 18th century than the 21st.

Look for a moment at Brunetti himself. Whenever he reads a book, it's bound to be one of the classics. Similarly, his wife Paola, an academic specialising in Henry James, knows she can talk to him about matters literary or philosophical. "When I started that first book," says Leon, "I wanted someone with whom I could sit at dinner and pass a lovely evening in conversation. The idea of a hard-boiled detective who doesn't change his underwear, who drinks or smokes all the time, who is unhappy with his work or with his children, or whose life is a mess, would be appalling."

A cultured man, then, and one who reflects the fact that Leon's own aims in life are more to do with culture than crime-writing. Ever since her first Brunetti novel, Death at La Fenice, which featured the death of a ferocious German conductor not unlike Herbert von Karajan, her novels have been best-sellers in the German-speaking world. That has, in turn, given her the financial freedom to do what she really wants to do: to record Handel operas with her own company, Il Complesso Barocco.

"Look," she says, "the books are very good, but they're not what gives me the most joy. Life has kissed me, and long may it continue. But what am I going to do with all the money? Buy a Lamborghini? I don't want a Lamborghini. I want to record Handel's operas, I want to hear Joyce DiDonato sing Alcina. This is as high as our culture goes. So just to be able to have contributed to maybe opening up someone to the joys of Handel's music ... well, then I'll die a happy woman."

Although she and her conductor friend Alan Curtis (like her, an American in Venice) have won awards for many of the ten recordings they've made, it's a commitment that doesn't come cheap.

"There's a 25-piece orchestra to pay for food, lodging and travel, and then singers, all for about three weeks – so this is a Lamborghini. But I'm so proud of what we have done with the music, even more proud than I am of the books."

She can't sing, can't read music and can't really explain why she fell so completely in love with Handel's work that she is now a world authority on its recording. "It just hit me. The first time I heard Messiah in the 1960s it was so strong, yet so orderly, and it fitted in with the affection I have for 18th-century literature and architecture." Her one musical skill is her good ear for the human voice – so discerning that many opera house casting directors ask her for advice if a role suddenly becomes vacant.

If her fiction reflects that same love of order, I suggest, there's no wonder it seems to be getting blacker? "But in that, I am also reflecting the opinions of my close friends in Venice. In all of the 40 years I've known them, I've never heard them so filled with black, pathetic, almost tear-inducing despair at the state of their country. It's not even disgust at corruption. It's beyond that."

Venetians, she says, have always regarded themselves as somewhat apart from the rest of Italy; in The Girl of His Dreams, Brunetti even refers to the south as "the occupied territory". "Yes, that's my own phrase for it and it's putting it at the most extreme that I ever have, but by God that's what it is. The rule of sanity and the law does not pertain ..."

The casual visitor to Italy (where she refuses to allow her books to be sold) would not, she concedes, see much evidence of this. If she's more aware of it, it's because one of her oldest friends, a German journalist who has studied the Mafia for years, points out to her, even in Venice, empty shops that are used for money-laundering operations for an organisation estimated to make an annual 93 billion euros.

Not, she says, that her native land can afford to mock. "In my generation, the east coast elite commanded our government and institutions. Now that's gone and they've been replaced by time-serving fascist pigs, the whole lot of them. The people who are in charge of my country now are just so stupid – going into Iraq without translators, without a plan for occupation of the capital city – that's what offends me."

Mindful of Brunetti's high regard for his mother-in-law, the Contessa, I ask whether she really prefers elites. "I trust intelligence more than I trust feeling. I guess that makes me not an American. I go back as seldom as possible. I haven't lived there for over 40 years, so why should I? To eat badly? To look at fat people? Why should I want to be there? It's like being with teenagers, being with Americans. They are always willing good things, feeling good things, having good intentions, but they don't do anything.

"Instead, I'm a citizen of a country that tortures its prisoners and then tries to get around it by all these Jesuitical arguments about whether waterboarding is torture. Do it to yourselves, sweethearts, and see if it is ...

"Italians are grown-ups by comparison. Cynical, seen it all; no hopes, but no illusions either. And they're a tolerant people too: decent, soft-hearted, demonstrably affectionate, they still eat together and are still loyal to their families. Good food and good music too. Why on earth should I leave?"

•The Girl of His Dreams by Donna Leon is published by William Heinemann, priced 16.99.

Donna Leon on ...

The depopulation of Venice: "You see it in the quality of the shops. Instead of ones that sell thread or bread or things residents actually need, they sell jester hats and tourist kitsch. So the man who sells you cheese is gone and the man who fixes your shoes is gone. And to get thread, say, you need to know the city, to know that over there in Santa Croce behind the gelateria where your uncle used to buy that fantastic pistachio ice-cream, there's still an old woman who was married to the brother of Filipena … Ah, that store. I've never heard anyone give an address in 25 years in Venice."

Her German fans: "It's at the level of cult, believe me. I get stopped in Venice three or four times a day and asked if I'm Donna Leon. Everyone's happy to see me, but I don't like being famous and it makes me uncomfortable. It's Austria, Germany, Switzerland, in that order. In Germany, I'm like Mrs Handel."

Favourite books: "I'm hooked on Jane (Austen] and Dickens. Dickens will teach you plot like nobody in the business."

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