Watching the Watcher: Navigating Venice with Commissario Brunetti

 

 

My heart speeds up on news that Donna Leon’s got a new police procedural, because I love her Guido Brunetti. Not in a romantic way, of course—I must respect his deep fidelity to his wife Paola, an expert on Henry James and Italian cooking—but because it’s another blissful chance to follow Brunetti through Venice, watch him navigate the internal politics of the Venice Questura, and think with him as he solves a murder. Another murder.

Leon invites us in by using Brunetti’s point of view, letting us share his reflections and observations.

Barely computer literate, he relies for key financial and personal investigations on the astounding internet skill of Signorina Elettra Zorzi, secretary to his adversary and boss, Palermo native Vice-Questore Patta. Brunetti thinks of Zorzi as “quick-witted, radiant—the other adjectives that presented themselves all suggested light and visibility.” Neither we nor Brunetti question how she manages to get her hands on such information. Leon amplifies the mystery of Zorzi’s improbable presence in police headquarters by Brunetti’s frequent observations of Zorzi’s clothes, which reflect her precision and elegance. But Brunetti’s observations also remind the reader that he’s a Venetian through and through, thus susceptible to and respectful of beauty:

Behind her desk, looking as though she was there only to meet the photographers from Vogue, sat Signorina Elettra Zorzi, today arrayed, as were the lilies of the field, in a white crepe de chine dress that fell in diagonal, but decidedly provocative, folds across her bosom. (Death and Judgment)

Or:

Her blouse, he noticed, was the colour of beetroot and had white buttons down the front and on the cuff. It fell with the liquid grace of silk. (The Temptation of Forgiveness)

On the dark side, we also see Brunetti’s adversaries at the Questura through his visual observations of the two Palermo natives, Vice-Questore Patta and Lieutenant Scarpa. Here’s the “universally despised” Scarpa:

Scarpa propelled himself away from the door jamb with a quick shove of his left shoulder. One instant he’d been lounging casually; the next he was upright and much taller. The speed with which he uncoiled his easy, limp posturing reminded Brunetti of snakes he’d seen in television documentaries: leave them alone and they lie coiled, still as death; make a sound and they become a whiplash unbraiding in the sun, multiplying the range within which they can strike.

We get it, Guido. Through your eyes we get Scarpa’s character completely, just as we do with the boss, Vice-Questore Patta. In the following scene Patta wants Brunetti to investigate a leak from the Questura that apparently reflects badly on Patta:

Uncertain how to respond…Brunetti returned his glance to his superior’s jacket and the hand-stitched buttonholes. Beauty was where you found it, and it was always comforting to see.

When Patta demands what Brunetti’s looking at, Brunetti responds honestly that he’s admiring the buttonholes. But when Patta insinuates that Brunetti must know about the leaks because his subordinates talk to him:

Hearing Patta’s suspicion relaxed Brunetti and told him that, though the subject might be new, the old, adversarial order had been restored. He tossed away his momentary warming towards Patta and returned to his native good sense.

His native good sense requires eternal caution as to Palermitans. In later books Leon makes Patta more layered, almost sympathetic—but Brunetti can’t drop his defenses:

“Ah, good morning, Commissario. Please have a seat, there’s something I’d like to discuss with you,” Patta said, giving a toothy smile that set Brunetti’s own teeth on edge.

“Yes, Vice Questore?” Brunetti inquired neutrally.

“Actually,” Patta began, his teeth now hidden behind his lips, perhaps being sharpened for their next appearance. “It’s about my…it’s about my wife.

“Ah,” was all Brunetti would permit himself. He decided it would be best to seek shelter, so placed a look of mild concern on his face and hid behind that. (Unto Us a Son is Given, 2019)

Leon similarly uses Brunetti’s interactions with his Questura allies to deepen their characters. In the same book, probing the possibility of a drug motive with his hard-working Inspector Vianello, Brunetti inquires about Vianello’s own experience with drugs:

Vianello laughed at Brunetti’s tone and said, “I try to keep some secrets, Guido.”

Just that laugh, that response, tells us the trust level between the two. We all know that how a boss interacts with subordinates exposes the boss’s character. Brunetti trusts his inspector, who returns the favor. Later, trying to respond to a plea for information from his own father-in-law, Brunetti asks Vianello to lunch:

When Vianello demonstrated no desire to discuss the varieties of religious experience, Brunetti thought he’d take further advantage of his friend’s good sense and said, “I’d like to have your opinion about something else, Lorenzo,” using his first name and thus signaling that this was a personal matter.

Had Vianello been a deer grazing in a forest, he could have been no more alert to the change in the normal sounds around him. He raised his head quickly from what he was eating, set his fork down, and gave his attention to his friend.

Here’s another of many examples of how Leon uses Brunetti’s point of view, his visual observations and reactions, to color the atmosphere of a mystery. At the beginning Brunetti has climbed the stairs to his office:

On his desk, Brunetti found what he did not want to find…He had last seen it, perhaps two months ago, when it had spent a week in his in-tray, resting there in the manner of a person a friend brings to dinner, who drinks too much, says nothing during the meal, and then refuses to leave even after the other guests are long gone. (The Temptation of Forgiveness, 2018)

What an image. We feel ourselves standing there with Brunetti, looking at a report we (and Brunetti) do not want to touch. But he’s obliged to deal with it. We feel how Brunetti values good manners and proper behavior, how he would distrust a breach of hospitality. We feel the shivery intrusion of murder just from the unwelcome sight of that sheet of paper in the in-tray, and Brunetti’s unwelcome recognition that he must pick up that paper.

Donna Leon uses other points of view as well—see the beginning of Acqua Alta, where she puts us in the heads of an opera singer and her partner describing the invasion of their apartment by two men who beat up the partner.

Still, I find Leon’s use of Brunetti’s point of view to build the characters of his compatriots and adversaries at the Questura succeeds in giving us one of the most satisfying cast of characters in police procedurals. Brunetti’s point of view, with his idiosyncratic observation of visual detail, provides a sense of immediacy. We practically breathe the atmosphere of the Questura and its inhabitants; at the same time we see into Brunetti’s own character. With good reason, Brunetti’s the man we love to follow through the streets and canals of Venice. As he walks along, allowing us to hear his thoughts, wonder what he’s wondering, and see what he’s seeing, we’re with him as he thinks his way to the solution. We trust Brunetti to lead us there, to finally unmask the murderer. We’re with him all the way.

Next time, thoughts on Fred Vargas and another commissario—Commissaire Jean-Louis Adamsberg of Paris.

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Helen Currie Foster is author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery novels, the most recent of which is GHOST NEXT DOOR. For more information about Helen and her books, see her website.

Learning to Write My Way: A Cautionary Tale

Don’t do what I did.

First, I learned how to write. Then, I learned how not to write. Then, I had to relearn how to write again.

woman-thinking writingWhen I first started writing, each story was a new adventure with new characters and settings. Stories ideas would come into my brain, marinate for a few days, and then I’d start working. I didn’t make a conscious plan to create stories in any particular genre. I wrote stories for me, telling the stories I wanted to tell as the ideas came to me. Having analyzed and written short stories during my education, the process came naturally to me. I simply sat down and began working, knowing the story needed a strong opening, rising action, a climax, and a dénouement.

As I grew more confident in my work and began submitting my short stories to magazines, I thought I’d figured out how to write. So I challenged myself to complete a novel length work, 60,000 words. I decided to write a mystery novel.

WritingMessyBut although I’d analyzed novels previously, the only thing I’d written of any great length was a nonfiction honor’s thesis for my undergraduate degree. I had never studied how to craft a novel. While I knew the story still required the same basic pieces, the idea of creating something so long and complex without preparation seemed daunting. I decided to read books about the process, to learn what I needed to know before diving in blindly.

Unfortunately, I chose the wrong books to direct me. Though the books came with great reviews and were highly recommended for learning to craft mystery novels, they all espoused one particular style: a carefully plotted method that involved mapping the book in detail in advance. Recognizing this as the method I had been taught to produce nonfiction, I thought, “Oh, I can do this. I’ve done this before. This must be the way to produce book-length works.”

All of my short stories had been written in a free-flowing, organic style with minimal advance plotting. I scribbled down a handful of notes and ideas on character or plot and started working, letting the story come to life on the page as I went. When I tried to write my first novel, I dropped that spontaneous process and tried to plot everything as the books I’d read suggested.

leave-839225_1280And thus, I shot myself in the foot. I inhibited my writing process by trying to follow someone else’s methods.

The joy went out of my work.

I was unable to get beyond a chapter or two before quitting.

After reassessing the situation, I began looking for other ways of crafting novels. This search lead me to discover the “pantser vs plotter” approaches. “Pantsers,” people who wrote “by the seat of their pants,” making things up as they went, were a whole category of authors. Their approach was fundamentally opposite to the “plotters,” authors who planned and outlined all the details in advance. Once I learned about these basic style differences, I found other authors who advised beginners to find their own method for writing books and not try to use anyone else’s. I found blogs and quotes from successful authors that said the only rule for writing was to actually put words on the page. How you arrived at that point was irrelevant.

Cartoonwomanwriting0
All pictures from Pixabay

So I took another stab at writing a novel, having finally understood that I had to write “my way” and not somebody else’s way. I finished my first novel, a second, and a third, and now the fourth will be coming out later this year. So, learn from my mistake. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to follow their method to write a book. Find your own process and start writing.

Well Said

by K.P. Gresham

“After all, tomorrow is another day.” Recognize that book quote? They’re the five favorite words of Scarlet O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. A great line to live by if you need to move on from a tragedy, but not very motivational when it’s time to write another blog!

I am in awe of the memorable lines written by different authors. Several changed how I look at life.

“I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.” This quote from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott helped me discover my own strength in the time of challenge–a sense of control when surrounded by chaos.

“Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of (another).” This line from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird pointed out that not every Bible quoting Religious Righter is a Christian. This was an important lesson for me as a preacher’s kid. Following the love commanded in the Bible is quite different from using the Bible as a weapon of hate.

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” J.K. Rowling wrote this in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It’s good to dream, but keep your reality healthy and fun. Considering how much “dreaming” goes into writing, this was solid advice to continue having a life while creating a make-believe world.

Did these gems just appear on the page as the author spewed creativity through her fingers? Or were these planned little hints artfully dropped into a book that was impossible to put down?

Many quotes have become part of our every day dialogue. That small phrase, regardless of the mood and time of the book’s setting, suddenly becomes the perfect way to express our present day thoughts.

“Winter is coming.” (Games of Thrones by George R. R. Martin) We use this when we know something bad is about to happen.

“Lead on, McDuff.” (The last words of the title character in Shakespeare’s MacBeth) Simply put, “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” Oh, wait. That’s a quote from Admiral Glasgow Farragut, but you get my drift, right?

What phrases or quotes from books have inspired you? Which ones do you quote in your head when different situations confront you? I’ll bet you have a few. If so, they’ve become a part of your fabric.

Great authors, whether by design or simple genius, put together words that speak to our souls. These phrases are woven into the framework of our culture.

My hope is that my stories, in their creative reality, use the best words to capture real moments of life through the lives of my characters. My greatest responsibility is to express the emotions of my truths through my characters and to make sure those truths are well said.

Author, Author: Josephine Tey–Occupying the Hinterland

by M. K. Waller

On his twenty-first birthday, Simon Ashby will become a rich man. He’ll inherit both his mother’s fortune and Latchetts, the estate left by his parents on their accidental death eight years ago. In the interim, his aunt Bee has, by skillful management, built Latchetts into a profitable farm and riding stable.

The other Ashby children—Simon’s sisters, nineteen-year-old Eleanor and nine-year-old twins Jane and Ruth—look forward to his  becoming master of Latchetts. Bee’s pleasure is marred only by the memory of Patrick, Simon’s twin, who shortly after their parents’ death disappeared, a presumed suicide.

Six weeks before Simon’s birthday, however, a stranger calling himself Brat Farrar appears and claims to be the long-lost Patrick. He looks like Simon, remembers everything Patrick should, has a reasonable explanation for his long absence, and—a striking distinction—knows and loves horses. Initially skeptical, Bee is yet open to the possibility of Brat’s being her missing nephew. The Ashbys might have a second reason to celebrate.

Except for Simon—because Patrick is the older twin. If Bee accepts Brat as an Ashby,  Simon will be displaced. Brat will inherit everything.

So far, author Josephine Tey has laid a conventional foundation for the mystery Brat Farrar.

But in the third chapter, Tey departs from the pattern by exposing critical information: Before the Ashbys have even heard of Brat Farrar, the reader knows Brat is an imposter, come “home” solely to take possession of Latchetts. The Ashby’s prodigal son is a fraud.

We readers, instead of wondering about Brat’s identity, focus on the Ashbys as they walk, unsuspecting, into a web of deceit. And, although we know  what they don’t, we walk right into it with them.

P. D. James liked mysteries, she said, because of their ordered structure—”in the end, the villain is caught and justice is done.” But here’s the rub: we don’t want Brat caught or justice done. We like him. We not only understand him, we cheer him on. We hope he achieves his goal. We don’t approve of criminal behavior, of course, but we want him to have Latchetts and the horses he loves.

Mystery writers often present their characters with moral dilemmas; here, Tey hands one to readers. She serves us up an exceedingly good read and makes us uncomfortable the whole time we’re reading.

“Impersonation,” says mystery writer Robert Barnard, “has been at the heart of many detective stories, but it has seldom carried the emotional charge of Brat Farrar, and our sympathies are never in a mere puzzle so skilfully and so surprisingly manipulated.”

He points to this as a mark of Tey’s “essence,” her “brilliant storytelling: her varied, loving characterization; above all, her control of reader sympathies.” In Brat Farrar, Tey definitely has control.

And the storytelling is brilliant. Tey, says Barnard, “often reveals a sort of impatience with the rules and conventions of the whodunit.” Three of her mysteries—Brat Farrar, The Daughter of Time, and The Franchise Affair— occupy “that hinterland—often uneasy, but not in her hands—between the crime novel and the ‘novel proper.'”

The Daughter of Time, named in 1990 one of The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, is a history lesson wrapped in a detective story. At the suggestion of actress friend Marta Hallard, Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant, hospitalized with a broken leg, passes the time by researching the life of Richard III of England. Studying material brought to him by several other friends and colleagues, he concludes that Richard was a good man, not a murderer, and that the image of the evil hunchback made famous by Shakespeare was merely Tudor propaganda. Colin Dexter’s The Wench Is Dead, an Inspector Morse mystery published in 1989, is an homage to Daughter.

My favorite of Tey’s books, The Franchise Affair, doesn’t feature a murder at all. The third in the Inspector Alan Grant series, it concerns a charge of kidnapping leveled against the Sharpes, a middle-aged woman and her elderly mother, newcomers whom the residents of the nearby village consider eccentric. A teenage war orphan accuses them of luring her to their house, demanding she do domestic work, and when she refuses, imprisoning her in an attic. The women claim they’ve never seen the girl. Robert Blair, the solicitor who responds to Marian Sharpe’s call for assistance—and who’s never handled a criminal case—finds them trustworthy and personable, and Inspector Grant dismisses the girl’s story as a fabrication. Within days, however, Grant is back with an arrest warrant, and as evidence against the Sharpes mounts, villagers believe the worst. Characters are so well drawn it’s easy to believe they have lives beyond the page; the plot is tight and suspenseful. Tey proves beyond doubt that murder isn’t necessary for a first-class mystery.

(The artist responsible for the cover pictured above either disagrees with my last assertion or failed to read the book—the body on the cover has no relation to anything inside.)

Tey, whose real name was Elizabeth MacIntosh, was a native of Scotland. Little is known about her personal life. “She lives,” writes Barnard, “by her works alone.” She wrote a number of historical plays under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot. She wrote only eight mysteries—six in the Inspector Grant series and two stand-alones—between 1929 and her untimely death in 1952, the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. But the quality of those novels establishes her as one of the great writers of British crime fiction, in the same league as Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Marjorie Allingham, and Dorothy L. Sayers.

I give the last word to Robert Barnard, who goes a step further in his praise:

“If Ngaio Marsh or Christie had died as young as Tey, we would have a good idea of what they could have gone on writing. We can guess that Tey would have written several more whodunits, but what she would have written is beyond our guesswork. That in itself is her best tribute.”

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A complete list of Josephine Tey’s mysteries is found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephine_Tey.

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Sources:

Robert Barnard’s fine introduction to the works of Josephine Tey, published by Simon and Schuster.

Barbara C. Sealock, “Queen of Crime: No Mystery in the Charm of P.D. James.” Chicago Tribune, March 31, 1985.

Wikipedia

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M. K. Waller’s short stories appear in Austin Mystery Writers‘ crime fiction anthologies, MURDER ON WHEELS and LONE STAR LAWLESS. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.