Tuesday, June 10, 2008
From Donna Leon to Lee Child
Who are the whodunit writers mystery authors themselves most enjoy reading and learning from? My all-time favorite is P.D. James, whose stately literary mysteries are as guilt-free a pleasure as I've ever experienced as well as an impeccable trove of ideas.
But right now a close second is Donna Leon, whose thoughtful, conscientious and humane Venetian detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti, is one of the best-constructed characters in all mystery literature. Leon also has no peer at weaving threads of plot with sense of place, and when that setting is as beautiful and historic as Venice, the reader is in for an extraordinary treat.
I have just finished Acqua Alta, Leon's 1996 novel about a brilliant art historian and her opera diva lover, and their entrapment in a murderous scheme to fashion and sell fake antique ceramics from China. It was gripping reading for its own sake, but, more important, I soaked up some clever techniques of plotting and characterization I hope to mirror in the next Steve Martinez mystery.
An example is how Leon uses Venice's weather. "Acqua alta," which provides the title of the novel, means "high water," the season when the storm-swollen Adriatic Sea causes Venice's canals to spill over and make the simplest things of life difficult to negotiate. That gives me an idea of how to use the often choking snows of the Upper Peninsula in the next book.
Leon's latest novel, The Girl of His Dreams, published last month, is on the bedside stand. But first I'm going to plunge into a very different sort of whodunit, Lee Child's newest Jack Reacher thriller, Nothing to Lose. If it is as good as his earlier books, you may not hear from me for a while.