Donna Leon

The most atmospheric of writers…


One of the great pleasures to be obtained from reading crime fiction is that most crime writers are acutely aware of both the geography and the mood of the communities that they write about.  I won’t claim that there is such a thing as national character – I know that I shall immediately be shot down in flames if I even hint at it – but I’m certain that the massive popularity that Scandinavian crime writers have achieved owes a significant debt to the ambience of their work: the dark nights and cold days that they evoke, which in turn inspire brooding and melancholy characters who seem determined always to spot the worm in the bud, despite the consummate beauty of their surroundings.  Similarly, the novels of Donna Leon and Michael Dibdin, which are set in Italy, skilfully succeed in communicating the rich cultural heritage of that country.

No-one, however, captures the essence or psyche of a country better than Barbara Nadel.  Perhaps I should say city, rather than country, as all of her novels that I’ve read have been set in Istanbul.  With apparent ease, she captures the contradictions of a city that has always looked both East and West: its exoticism and squalor; the brutality of some of its people and the sophisticated philosophical outlook of others; the thrusting modernity that jostles but does not oust more ancient superstitions.  Other writers have written eloquently about this city, especially Orhan Pamuk, whose Nobel prize-winning work, so exquisitely wrought, seems to derive its depth from these very contradictions; yet, in my opinion, no-one, not even Pamuk, surpasses Nadel’s descriptions of Istanbul’s mean streets and boisterous crowds when she is writing at her best.

I’ve read three or four of her books now.  I particularly admire her depiction of her world-weary but wise and humorous detective, Çetin Ikmen, who is beleaguered not only by the absurdities of red tape and the inefficiency and bigotry of his colleagues at work, but also by his large, unruly and ever-growing extended family at home.  The latter is presided over by his ebullient and chaotic, much less well-educated wife, Fatma.

Harem is a particularly accomplished novel, because it examines issues of profound significance in Western countries through the filter of setting them in Istanbul.  This not only makes it easier for the Western European reader to read about them, but also points up the dual thinking still prevalent in almost all countries by presenting it as a peculiarly Turkish phenomenon.  This provokes the immediate response: ‘That couldn’t happen here!’, followed soon afterwards by: ‘Or could it?’ The original crimes committed in Harem are rape and the exploitation of women, leading in some instances to murder.  The first of the murder victims is Hatice, a friend of Ikmen’s teenage daughter Hulya.  Nadel’s account of Ikmen’s boss’s reluctance to pursue the girl’s murderers and bring them to justice because she evidently was not a virgin before they attacked her is particularly poignant.  We might try to flatter ourselves that such an attitude could not prevail in our country, were it not that only in the last few days a British barrister has described a thirteen-year-old girl against whom sexual offences were committed as ‘predatory’.  Nor does Nadel pull her punches when it comes to describing the perpetrators of rape.  Hatice had unwittingly become involved with a group of people practising organised depravity, but her case is mirrored by one even closer to home for Ikmen, that of the abusive relationship that exists between two of his own police officers.  As one would expect from a writer of Nadel’s talent, the moral conclusions that she draws are complex, but she is quite clear that women should never suffer from sexual abuse, whatever their personal moral code.  This message may seem obvious, yet it is one that societies everywhere seem to be taking a long time to digest.  Harem makes a very valuable contribution to the debate.

Of the other characters, several old friends feature in this novel.  My particular favourite is Mehmet Suleyman, Ikmen’s disdainfully aristocratic colleague, who in this book finds himself less able than usual to sail, cosseted and immaculate, through his life, as if the teeming, grubby throng of humanity that it is his job to police does not really exist.  Suleyman’s volatile Irish wife is suffering from post-natal depression and he has to run the gauntlet of her tantrums and her misery.  And then there is Fatma, impossible but lovable, weaving her idiosyncratic magic on her weary but essentially adoring husband.

I wholeheartedly recommend Harem.  If you’re new to Barbara Nadel, you won’t lose anything by starting with this book, as, despite being one of a series, it stands completely on its own, as such novels should.  However, I’m certain that, if you do read Harem first, it will make you also want to sample some of the others.

Beastly blended pleasures

Blended pleasures

I have been a fan of Donna Leon for a long time.  My respect for her redoubles now that I’ve read Beastly Things (which was one of my son’s/daughter-in-law’s Mother’s Day presents to me – no hidden comment intended, I’m sure!).  This novel should be thrust in the face of all those smug, sententious critics who think that crime fiction is not ‘serious’.  Without giving too much away, it is about the institutionalised abuse of animals and how substandard meat is being dishonestly introduced into the food chain.  It was published before the horsemeat controversy was exposed, so it is prescient as well as topical.

Reading Beastly Things can be painful and even, at times, horrific.   In addition to animal maltreatment, it explores blackmail and the corrosive effect that lying has on personal relationships.  The novel begins with a murder – the result in part of the collision of all these themes – but the death is less central to it than they are (although the victim suffers from Madelung disease, clearly well-researched by the author, which makes him interesting and helps to give credibility to the plot).

Paradoxically, some of the most beautiful and memorable passages describe the carcasses of slaughtered animals.  The whole book is a metaphor for the degenerative state of Italian politics.  It suggests that these have so tainted public life that people no longer have a moral yardstick by which to govern their private lives.  The novel would be extremely depressing were it not for the finely-crafted passages about Commissario Guido Brunetti’s relationship with his wife Paola.  These run like a musical refrain through all the Brunetti books.  I am not often jealous of other writers, but I really do envy the way in which Leon succeeds in presenting Brunetti’s perfect marriage to the perfect woman – Paola is beautiful, intelligent, rich and a good cook who daily prepares a delicious lunch and dinner for Brunetti and her two (fairly perfect) teenage children, as well as holding down a demanding job as a university lecturer – without being coy or cloying.  She achieves this by portraying the marriage against the backdrop of Italy’s continuing ills.  The implication is that the Commissario’s personal idyll is daily under threat and could be destroyed at any moment by some unseen force or miasma.  And, of course, his professional life is filled with seamy horrors.

There is always a sombre undertone to Leon’s work, but this is one of her darkest novels yet – the more so because it is not in the slightest bit far-fetched.  It could easily have been based on fact and, for all I know, it has been.  I recommend it wholeheartedly – but if you are planning to read it, you should invest in a bar of chocolate as well, to keep up your serotonin levels!

Donna Leon in sombre mood: Uniform Justice

Uniform Justice

I am a great fan of Donna Leon.  I think that she has brought a sophisticated and civilised approach to crime writing and, in the process, proved that a crime novel doesn’t need to be about the most sensational blood-and-guts murders in order to captivate.  Uniform Justice, which was first published in 2003, does not disappoint; it meets all her usual standards of excellence.  However, it is a very sombre, brooding novel.  It is about life in a military academy – the murder victim is a cadet – and the corrupt and unwholesome practices that go on there.  It also explores the relationships between parents and children and shows how compassion – or the lack of it – and the dynamics between familial generations can make, mar or even terminate lives.  The plot is quite monolithic, with no sub-plot to speak of.  Although the novel is certainly crafted with the depth and subtlety that I always associate with Donna Leon, there is little of the exuberance and tapestry-like richness that she usually builds up.  It is reminiscent of one of Matisse’s earlier paintings, before he discovered colour: created in hues of brown, grey and black.

As a mother, I found it almost painful to read right to the end.  It is a book that I think will stay with me, but I prefer her more baroque works, because in them she succeeds in counterbalancing the squalor and tragedy of death with a brighter vision of human nature in all its many manifestations, from the noble to the sinister, with all the many quirks in between.

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