Greek and Roman tragedies are still relevant to Donna Leon

Donna Leon
Donna LeonGrove Atlantic

In Donna Leon’s newest Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery, “Trace Elements,” a woman’s dying words lead the Venetian detective to uncover a threat to the entire city. This is the 29th book in Leon’s best-selling series. Leon, who was born in New Jersey, lived in Venice for many years but now divides her time between there and Switzerland. She speaks at 6 p.m., Thursday, March 5, at Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre. Tickets are $5 for general admission or $30, which includes Leon’s book.

BOOKS: What are you reading?

LEON: The first volume of W. Somerset Maugham’s collected short stories. He’s very clever and very savage. His physical descriptions of characters are breathtakingly good.


BOOKS: Whom else do you read when it comes to short stories?

LEON: Flannery O’Connor is at the top of the list. I’ve given copies of her stories to English friends, and they never get it. Only Americans understand her genius and her perversity. I read Brad Gooch’s biography of her at the same time as I read Joan Schenkar’s biography of Patricia Highsmith. Here’s Highsmith, alcohol, drugs, sex, and rock 'n’ roll. I found it very dull. Then I read about virginal Miss O’Connor, a deeply committed Catholic who lived on her mother’s peacock farm. It was riveting.

BOOKS: How would you describe your taste in fiction?

LEON: I don’t read fiction very much anymore, but when I do it is for the quality of the writing. I sort of prefer English authors. They are so effortlessly elegant. I adore Dickens. His language is wonderful. It can be a little heavy-handed at times, but he could tell a story. I’m waiting a few years to reread “Bleak House,” which is one of the finest novels ever, as is “Great Expectations.”

BOOKS: Do you read contemporary fiction?

LEON: I don’t read a lot. I read Greek and Roman tragedies, such as Euripides’s “Trojan Women” and “Medea.” I find them so overwhelmingly still relevant.


BOOKS: How have you changed as a reader?

LEON: I don’t read crime fiction anymore. There are some writers I will look for. One is Kate Atkinson though she always has happy endings. I also like Martin Cruz Smith, as well as Robert Harris and John le Carré. You shouldn’t spit on your own plate, but I find with the death of someone like Ruth Rendell, there are few elegant writers of crime fiction left.

BOOKS: When did you read crime fiction the most?

LEON: When I was in grad school at the University of Massachusetts. I’ve never had a TV, so I turned to the equivalent, which is crime fiction. I read hundreds of them. I read Rendell and Ross Macdonald, a fabulously gifted writer.

BOOKS: Are there books you tend to give as gifts?

LEON: I’ve given a lot of copies of O’Connor’s collections and any of the Patrick O’Brian novels. For people who like to read letters, “One Art,” the collection of Elizabeth Bishop’s letters. She’s gloriously funny.

BOOKS: Do you read poetry often?

LEON: Yes but I don’t read much modern stuff. My favorite poet is John Donne. He’s the top in religious and love poetry. No one else has ever wowed me like him.

BOOKS: Are you a library user?

LEON: No, because I haven’t lived in the States in 50 years. I can read in Italian but I read primarily in English. There are very few bookstores in Venice that sell books in English. I go to London twice a year and buy books. I’m coming to the States in March, and I’m overjoyed at the idea of going to bookstores there.


BOOKS: What books are you packing for your trip?

LEON: “The Letters of the Younger Pliny,” because I’ve never read it. I’m also taking Randall Jarrell’s “Pictures From an Institution,” which is about life in a small private college. It is so wonderfully funny that just thinking about it makes me laugh.

BOOKS: Do you know which books you’ll buy when you get here?

LEON: Yes. I always travel with my book list should it ever happen that I’m kidnapped and held prisoner in a bookstore. Oh please, let it happen.