Donna Leon's Mysterious Venice

Venice is a seductive city. Sixteen years ago, it cast its spell on an American teacher. Donna Leon was entranced by this small metropolis in the midst of a great lagoon, a city built on mudbanks where the walls rise up out of the water. CBS News Correspondent Anthony Mason reports for CBS News Sunday Morning.


It was glorious and I fell in love with it at first glance," says Leon.

She came. She stayed. And then, she started killing people.

Leon reads: "The body floated face down in the murky water of the canal. Gently the ebbing tide tugged it along toward the open waters of the Laguna. The head bumped a few times against the moss covered steps of the embankment...Close by, the bells of the church chimed 4 in the morning."

Donna Leon's Venetian mysteries have become unlikely international best sellers. Her books have only a cult following in the United States, but German and Swiss tourists recognize her on the Venetian streets.

She's popular in Austria, England and Japan too. Her books have created a peculiar fame for a woman who arrived here just looking for work. Her job prospects quickly took off. She was hired at the NATO airbase in nearby Aviano, where she still teaches English to the families of American pilots.

Crime writing would come later, as she told Mason during a ride along a Venice canal.

Anthony Mason: "In fact there isn't a lot of crime here, is there?"
Leon: "Only in my books."
Mason: "But it's a great place to dump a body."
Leon: "Yes, look. That's one thing that's happened since I started writing these things. I now view everything as criminal."
Mason: "In that story, the body washes up along the wall here?"
Leon: "Right on that little island there."
Mason: "On that little dirt island in the corner, right here along the wall."

Leon will confess that her first murder was an accidental killing: "As with so much of my life, it came out of a joke," she says.

An avid opera buff, opera critic, and even occasional consultant to opera producer Alan Curtis, one night nine years ago, Leon was at Venice's La Fenice Opera House when a friend complained about a famous conductor. "And soon we were talking about how he would die in the dressing room and what would kill him," Leon says.

That's when it hit her. "I thought, what a great idea for a murder mystery," she says. "So I started with no plan, with no thought, to write a murder mystery that began with the discovered corpse of a famous German conductor in the dressing room of La Fenice."

Death at La Fenice introduced Leon's Venetian detective Guido Brunetti. Leon reads: "Because this was Venice, the police came by boat, blue light flashing on the forward cabin. They pulled up at the side of a small canal behind the theater. Guido Brunetti, a commisario of police for the city, was the first through the door."

Mason: "So where did Brunetti come from?"
Leon: "He just came out of my head one day. When I wrote the scene where he came out of the boat, it's as if he sprang full blown from my head at that moment. I knew everything about him... He was just there."

Leon reads: "He was a surprisingly neat man. Tie carefully knotted. Hair shorter than was the fashion. Even his ears lay close to his head as if reluctant to call attention to themselves. His clothing marked him as Italian. The cadence of his speech announced that he was Venetian. His eyes were all policeman."

Mason: "So after all this time here, what do you consider yourself? Do you consider yourself an American?"
Leon: "Always. That will never change."

Leon spent much of her adult life as a wanderer, just as she wandered to Venice.

Mason: "Did you think you were going to stay?"
Leon: "I have to confess that I never thought I was going to stay anywhere. That I never had any desire to be a success or a desire to settle anywhere or grow up and be an adult. I just wanted to have a lot of fun. I just wanted to have a nice life."

Before she found the pageantry of Venice, Leon kept moving, from England to China to Saudi Arabia and Iran.

She says, "I saw an ad in The New York Times that was advertising for English teachers to go to Iran. And I said, oh, I've never been there. I had to get a map. I didn't know where it was."

It was the late '70s. The shah was still in power. When the Islamic revolution ended his reign, it also ended Donna's stay. Says Leon, "We were put on buses from Isfahan, where I lived, to Tehran. We were taken to the airport. We were put on planes and we were taken away."

Leon is at home in Venice now, friends with the gondoliers, with Betty the local mynah bird, and well acquainted with the mental patients who visit the city's psychiatric center in the courtyard across from her apartment. Looking at one patient, Leon explains, "She's the one who shuffles back and forth all the time. She cannot stand still."

Then last year, she took a bold step:

Mason: "When did you first see the place?"
Leon: "In April of 97, I asked Mirco the cheeseman if he knew of a house in the area. He said this was for sale."

Once again the city's charms seduced her. Says Leon, "I did this and bingo, I lost my head and my heart and I bought it."

Now, she calls it the house from Hell. Pointing, she says, "This wall is buckling because of the stresses in the building."

Her apartment is coming apart at the seams. And, breaking through the infamous Italian bureaucracy to restore it has been a nightmare:

"This shell of a house has cost me a year of my life," she says. "This has cost me, so far, a book." The Venetians, Leon continues, "are always saying (in Italian) 'everything's falling down, but nothing falls down.' And it's true, nothing eer falls down... But if you watch and look at the buildings, you can see that month by month and year by year, the cracks get bigger and the walls get crookeder."

It didn't fall down. But three years ago, Venice's beloved opera house did go up in smoke. All through that cold January night, Leon watched La Fenice burn from her window.

Leon recalls, "There was this bright red glow in the sky. And I didn't know then what it was...I walked over and people started saying, 'E La Fenice che bruccia.' And who could believe that the theater was burning... By 6 o'clock in the morning it was gone."

It was arson. But what exactly happened in the theater that inspired Leon's first mystery is itself a mystery. There are official theories, of course. But in Italy, Donna Leon has learned, they can be as suspect as the crimes:

Leon: "It's not that I don't trust the official story, I just don't trust any story, whether it's official or unofficial."
Mason: "Why is that?"
Leon: "Because [of] experience; at a certain time in a person's life, I think, hope can no longer spring eternal. You just have to face facts and say, this is a fallen world and people lie and truth gets distorted and that's the way it is and what's for dinner. Maybe I have been in Italy too long."



Donna Leon currently has no American publisher. Her books were published by Harper Collins. She can be reached through her agent in Germany, Diogenes Verlag, at fax number 011-41-1 524-8515.

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Death at La Fenice



©1999 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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