Tuesday, April 5, 2011: Maximum Shelf: Drawing Conclusions

Grove Atlantic: Drawing Conclusions by Donna Leon

Grove/Atlantic: Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman

Grove/Atlantic: Father of the Rain by Lily King

Grove/Atlantic: House Divided by Mike Lawson

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: Drawing Conclusions

In this edition of Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on a new title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere--we present Donna Leon's Drawing Conclusions, which goes on sale April 5. The review and interviews are by Marilyn Dahl and John McFarland. Grove/Atlantic has helped support the issue.

Grove/Atlantic: Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

Books & Authors

Donna Leon: The Bell Tower of San Marco Will Suffice

You have been quoted as saying that the seed for your Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery series was planted backstage at the La Fenice Opera House during a discussion of ways to do away with a particularly irksome conductor. Do you feel that moment was more than opportune, perhaps kismet, considering what it produced?

I think it was just dumb luck, a fair bit of which I've had in my life. Gabriele Ferro and his wife are Sicilians, so when we started to talk about another conductor of whom none of us had much good to say or think, there followed what the Italians call "un escalation," and I found myself studying the room for a place to put the body, and from that to method, and from that to motive. Hmmm, the books haven't changed much in two decades, have they? I'd never thought about writing a book, but once the idea came, I figured I'd give it a pop and see what happened.

Guido Brunetti, the main character in the series, is a sophisticated humanist who happens to have a job that brings him into daily contact with crime, corruption and less-than-admirable people. How did you come to create Brunetti? Did you know that he was so complex and humane from the start, a person who would continue to surprise you?

When I wrote the book, I thought only of a one-off: I wanted to see if I could write a book; the idea of a series never appeared. I did have the sense, however, to write about a man I'd like to have dinner with--not a drink, mind you; that's too quickly over--but a meal, during which he could talk about what he was reading, what he thought about the current situation in Italy and the world, where he might venture an opinion about Holy Mother Church. Experience suggests to me that a life lived in intimate company with a beloved person is a happier life, so he, like Mr. Bingley, was in need of a wife. She, too, had to be someone who would be able to opine about this and that, so I made her a professor of English literature. It could have been Italian, I suppose, but I find it easier to show off in English. The three of us have been engaged in conversation since that evening.

Guidebooks for tourists tend to focus on significant historical aspects (and objects) of Venice; while honoring Venice's past, you look at how your characters reside in a contemporary city alive at every turn, although some of those turns may be well over 800 years old. How do you avoid the temptation to exploit the touristy aspects of the city you obviously love?

I've lived there long enough to have days or afternoons--especially if I'm in a hurry--when I take the city for granted. Fancy that, huh? Boring old Basilica. Not another bridge! This feeling comes upon many of us who live there; luckily, it is easily dissipated by the sight of a window or a trellis or a stone never seen before. I suppose it's like living with a gorgeous man: you've seen him in the morning, grumpy, so you come to take him for granted. But if he puts on the tux (and Venice always wears a tux) the sight of him can knock you down.

Each mystery Brunetti investigates centers on an issue in Venetian life--Drawing Conclusions, for example, touches on the issue of long-term residents of advancing years, and particularly available elder care. Is there an element of serendipity at work here as you land on a particular issue for a new novel in the series?

Yes, I've found many of the subjects of the books in the newspapers or a casual remark someone makes, even sometimes overheard remarks. Old animosities are wonderful because you get stories that can go back generations and are exposed to rancor that has had that much time to ripen. I never know when it is going to hit, but I always know when it does.

Many readers are particularly taken with Signorina Elettra, secretary to Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta, who proves a perfect accomplice for Brunetti and serves as a window into different perspectives for him. How do you get into the personalities of so many distinct characters? Self-hypnosis? A trance state? Adapting real-life models freely?

I think it's called imagination.

You pride yourself on living anonymously in Venice and have gone so far as not to allow the Guido Brunetti mysteries to be translated into Italian to reduce the possibility of becoming famous or even recognized in Italy. Police tend to know their citizenry (and the historical city of Venice has only 50,000 permanent residents); do you think the Venice police force may be aware of you and have interest in you, despite your efforts to remain anonymous?

I'm sure the police have absolutely no interest in me. Italians don't read much, and certainly most of them don't read in a foreign language, so anything they think they know about me comes to them from gossip or references in the papers. But it's rather as if you were to be told that a famous Icelandic writer lived on the next block. Big deal. Also, everything that's been said in the books is common knowledge.

You have lived year-round in Venice for decades. What are the particular pleasures of living there that compensate for any drawbacks of being in a city that can become overrun by tourists?

Everything the eye falls upon is beautiful, there are no cars, and people are always willing to stop and chat. Fresh vegetables and fish are available at the Rialto market, people look good, and life is slow and relaxing. But the most important part is the beauty, I think.

Our culture finds ingenious ways to commercialize the most unlikely things. Venice, as a unique wonder and repository of history, offers a multitude of opportunities for beloved sites and objects to be converted into kitschy artifacts for sale. Have you run into any particular ones that take your breath away?

Plastic gondolas? With fairy lights? Jesters' hats? Ceramic ashtrays with a photo of the Rialto Bridge? That dreadful water-swirled paper? The made-in-China masks and glass? Pizza sold by the slice? McDonald's? Open-air stands selling tourist crap? The politics of the city?

In Venice, you never have to be concerned about taking care of car trouble. For a writer, that is one less distraction from getting down to serious writing. Are there other benefits for the writing discipline that you have found by living there?

I look out my window and I see the Bell Tower of San Marco. That will suffice.--John McFarland

Author photo: Regine Mosimann


Grove/Atlantic: Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante

Jamison Stoltz: Controlling the Urge to Visit Venice Often

Jamison Stoltz is a senior editor at Grove/Atlantic. He edits nonfiction--recent titles include Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History from Dutch Village to Capital of Black America by Jonathan Gill and Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession by Dave Jamieson--and mysteries and thrillers, including Mike Lawson's Joe DeMarco series and the novels of Mark Haskell Smith. Before joining Grove/Atlantic, he worked at William Morris in London and New York.

How did Donna Leon come to be published by Grove/Atlantic?

Donna Leon was first published in the U.S. by HarperCollins. For whatever reason, after a number of books, they stopped publishing her, though she kept writing them to great success around the world. She just didn't have an American publisher, and bookstores here were resorting to importing expensive British paperbacks--and selling them well, I believe. Jump forward a few years and Morgan Entrekin, my boss and the publisher of Grove/Atlantic, was having dinner in London when he ran into Ravi Mirchandani, an editor he knew at Heinemann. Ravi happened to be at dinner with his author Donna Leon. Morgan and Donna met, and knowing that he'd been a lifelong reader of mysteries and thrillers, Ravi sent a number of the Brunetti books with Morgan on his vacation in Greece. From what I've heard, he couldn't put them down and a wooing ensued, with Donna eventually won over in large part due to the quality of our list. We published Uniform Justice in 2003 as an Atlantic Monthly Press hardcover, and have done every book since then. With the exception of the first novel, Death at La Fenice, which is still with HarperCollins, we've published all the paperbacks through a partnership with Penguin.

What is it like working with a writer who has a great deal of experience in her field, not to mention a highly successful track record with the earlier mysteries in this particular series?

Drawing Conclusions was the sixth Brunetti title I've handled, and as with the previous books, about a year in advance of publication the manuscript landed in my inbox from Venice and I dove right in. To call it work is perhaps overstating the effort required; Donna is a pro and what arrives is always in excellent shape. She is a delight to work with.

Are there any specific challenges for you in editing the books, other than controlling your urge to make frequent trips to Venice to fact check details of the locale?

There's that, for sure. A few years ago I visited Venice and stayed in the Cannaregio pallazina of one of Donna's friends. My wife and I made it a point to track down Brunetti's apartment building and have a drink in one of his haunts.

Aside from keeping track of a host of little details from book to book, such as where Signorina Elettra buys flowers for the Questura, the hardest thing might be settling on a final cover design. We came up with at least 30 different ones for Drawing Conclusions, working up until the last minute. But in the end it's worth it, and I'm thrilled with the jacket. It's lush, a little somber, and emotionally powerful, like the book.

Donna Leon is adept at balancing details of police work, the atmospherics of daily life in Venice and complex human relationships with intelligence, wit and drama. At the same time that you encourage her to be true to her artful balance among the police, Venice and personal relationships, what kinds of editorial suggestions do you make?

With Donna's books I tend to focus on little, but essential, details. In the first draft of Drawing Conclusions, for example, there was a clue--a notebook with obliterated writing--which I felt was too strong a hint, and it didn't make it into the final version. Earlier, Brunetti is at dinner with Vice-Questore Patta and the loathsome Lieutenant Scarpa, which I felt needed explanation, and he is given a reprieve by a call to his telefonino, a device I know he doesn't like. It ended up turning into a nice detail: Brunetti brings the phone so that his wife, Paola, can call with a fake emergency. Also, crime fiction readers are incredibly sharp; if we mix up the number of apartments in a building or something like that, someone will catch it. So I try to do it first.

With the Guido Brunetti mysteries, Donna Leon presents characters who are witty, sophisticated and strongly opinionated. Do you recall a particular exchange where her characters made you laugh out loud?

Brunetti's relationship with Paola is always good for a few laughs. In this book, there's a great exchange around Champagne given to her by one of her students. One of my favorite moments came at my own expense. Early in About Face there's a dinner party at Palazzo Falier, the home of Brunetti's in-laws. I made a comment to Donna regarding the seating arrangement, which resulted in this in the book:

"Someone more familiar with the etiquette of seating at dinner might have been shocked at the proximity of wives to their husbands: it is to be hoped that their sensibilities would have been calmed by the fact that the Conte and Contessa faced one another from the ends of the rectangular table."

At Grove/Atlantic, how does the process of getting everyone behind a title like Drawing Conclusions work? How do you sell the marketing and publicity departments and prepare them to make the larger world aware of its appeal?

A new book from Donna Leon is about the easiest thing to pitch to our sales reps, since Grove/Atlantic has been publishing her for nearly a decade and her readership keeps growing. Plus, after all this time, many of us have strong personal relationships with her. When she tours the U.S., our publicity director, associate publisher and I will each take a turn on tour with her. Last time I took her to Miami, where she had a great standing-room-only event at Books & Books.

What particular sections or scenes from the novel will grab readers and serve to stimulate spirited discussions at the many book clubs that regularly choose Guido Brunetti mysteries for their meetings?

Donna has said she's less interested in the "who" than the "why," and I think this is a reason book clubs--and people who don't often choose crime fiction--gravitate to her work. Without giving away too much, there's a moving story of love and loss in Drawing Conclusions, a question of what we think we need to be happy and what we will do to get it.--John McFarland


Book Brahmin: Donna Leon


Donna Leon was born and raised in New Jersey and taught English literature in many foreign locales, including Italy, Iran and China, before she began to devote all her time to writing. Living outside of the United States since 1969, she settled permanently in Venice in 1981, attracted by its civility, beauty and luxury of life. Death at La Fenice, the first in her long-running mystery series featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, won Japan's Suntory Prize for best suspense novel in 1991. Friends in High Places (2000) was awarded the Macallan Silver Dagger for Fiction from the Crime Writers' Association. The 20th Brunetti novel, Drawing Conclusions, is an April 2011 publication from Atlantic Monthly Press.

Aside from completing a new Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery each year, she is deeply involved with the music of the Baroque era and is a supporting producer of Il Complesso Barocco (opera company) based in Florence, Italy.


On your nightstand now:

Emma; Rubicon by Tom Holland; and back issues of the London Review of Books, the New York Review, the New Yorker, Espresso and--yes--the Nation.

Favorite book when you were a child:

The Wind in the Willows and thus my great affection for badgers.

Your top five authors:

Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Vikram Seth, John Donne, Ross MacDonald.

Book you've faked reading:

Paradise Lost.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Dog Boy by Eva Hornung (who also has written other novels under the name Eva Sallis).

Book you've bought for the cover:

I've never done that.

Book that changed your life:

A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn.

Favorite line from a book:

I think in Emma it is said of Mrs. Norris that "she talked of it everywhere as something that was not to be spoken of."

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Bleak House.


Book Review

Mandahla: Drawing Conclusions

Drawing Conclusions by Donna Leon (Atlantic Monthly Press, $24.00 Hardcover, 9780802119797, April 2011)

Drawing Conclusions is the 20th Commissario Guido Brunetti novel by Donna Leon, and it will absolutely delight longtime fans and new readers alike. Her writing is so pleasurable--both graceful and provocative--that those coming to her for the first time are to be envied, with 20 books to sink into.

The novel opens with translator Anna Maria Giusti returning to her Venice apartment after an unsatisfying visit with her lover at his parents' home in Palermo, where she was installed in a hotel. She can't come up with a word to describe how different they were. They carried telefonini, they dressed well, they were wealthy, they spoke "an Italian more elegant than anything she heard from her Veneto-cadenced family and friends." It was another world. As Anna Maria ponders this, she sees a notice of attempted delivery of a registered letter; she vaguely fears that some government agency has discovered an irregularity and she is under investigation for something she did--or did not do. In only a few pages we are deftly introduced to an Italy we normally don't read about--in this instance, regional differences and the reach of the government; as the book progresses, we learn about corruption, cynicism, grappa, tramezzini, the number of Chinese living in Italy and daily life in this "theft-beleaguered city," with its glorious past and literally crumbling present.

Anna Maria goes to her neighbor Signora Altavilla's apartment to get the rest of her mail, which the older woman takes in. She finds her on the floor, dead. There is a bit of blood by her head, so Anna Maria calls the police. Brunetti takes the call, glad for an excuse to leave the dinner he's not enjoying with his nemeses, stuffy Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta and odious Lieutenant Scarpa.

The Commissario considers the scene at the woman's apartment; while he thinks of himself as "the least superstitious of men and took pride in his intense respect for reason and good sense," he accepts the possibility of something that leaves traces, and here he senses traces of a troubled death. But the pathologist says that Costanza Altavilla died of a heart attack, and the bruise on her neck--well, perhaps when she fell....

Signora Altavilla was a good woman, a retired teacher who sponsored children through charities and visited the elderly at an old people's home, the casa di cura run by an order of nuns. She seems an unlikely candidate for murder. But her apartment is something of a mystery: there are spaces on the walls where paintings are missing, and the guest room dresser stores plastic-wrapped packets of women's underclothing in three sizes.

Brunetti meets her son and is puzzled at his insistence on being reassured that she died from a heart attack--he seems to be hiding something. The pathologist, Rizzardi, assures him, but doesn't mention the mark on her throat. When Brunetti visits the casa di cura to ask about the dead woman, he's met with evasion as the Mother Superior fences with Brunetti. She does say that Signora Altavilla believed one should always tell the truth, regardless of the cost, something the nun thinks is a luxury. Brunetti is stymied. "Who knew what went on in the mind of a nun, much less one from the South? They drank discretion with the first taste of mother's milk and grew up with frequent examples of the consequences of indiscretion."

Later, he talks to Signora Sartori, one of the people with whom Signora Altavilla spent the most time at the casa di cura, whose odd utterance "Trouble comes" leads Brunetti down a new path, with the appearance of Benito Morandi; a mysterious, deceased beauty named Madame Reynard; and more lost art.

The mystery is compelling, as twisted as Venetian streets, and further joys in Drawing Conclusions come from Brunetti and his circle of family and police, and the particular world that is Venice.

His wife, Paola, whom he loves "to the point of folly," is a professor of English literature with a passion for Henry James, a fabulous cook and possessed of an acerbic wit. Brunetti tells her he worries about people being exposed to the Gazzettino 24 hours a day now that it is online. "Paola, who often took a longer and more measured view than did Brunetti, said, 'It might help to think of it as toxic waste that we don't ship to Africa.' "

His able assistant Vianello is charming and subtle, "much like the embers in a covered brazier. One never knew what brightness lurked there or what light might break forth from his invisible silence." Brunetti's superior, Patta, has two missions: minimize damage to the image of Venice, then damage to tourism ("like tinnitus, he felt the low rumble of Patta's need to do as little as possible to upset the public."). Patta's secretary is the lovely and redoubtable Signorina Elettra Zorzi, she of the advanced computer skills and no hesitation to wield them illegally for Brunetti. Inventive and clever, she often responds to questions "with the condescension of the heavyweight champion confronted by a nightclub bouncer."

Guido Brunetti is the heart of these novels--philosophical, skeptical, slightly melancholy, an adoring husband and father, cheered by the beauty of Venice but aware of the abandonment and decay, the slow decline of the city he loves. "After a time, he went out into the kitchen, grumbling at the day, and found a note from Paola. 'Stop grumbling. Coffee on stove. Just light it. Fresh brioche on counter.' " He looks out the back window to the Dolomites in the north; though he is from many generations of Venetians, he finds solace in the mountains. They seem "so very permanent, while the sea, ever changing, was to him visibly disturbed by what happened to it, further, it was a more evident victim of the damage and depredations of man."

Brunetti is propelled by a profound sense of justice, tempered by a shrewd understanding of people. The novel's denouement brings into play the complexities of true justice mixed with an unexpected tenderness and compassion. Every sentence in this novel is to be savored, whether about a government sunk in corruption, the interplay between personae or the mysteries of sorrow and the heart. Subtle, amusing and often scathing, Drawing Conclusions is an elegant and satisfying addition to the Commissario Guido Brunetti canon. --Marilyn Dahl

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