detective

On Being Annoyed at Donna Leon

I am annoyed at a writer I have never read and have only heard of in the past days as I randomly listened to past episodes of The Guardian Books Podcast (“Writing crime with Donna Leon, Duncan Campbell and Barry Forshaw” from May 2016.)

Overall, the episode, including Donna Leon’s segment, was highly interesting. My annoyance didn’t come until later when she was asked why her novels weren’t translated into Italian. But before I continue, let me first add, the long-running series of detective novels by Donna Leon are set in Italy and feature an Italian police commissioner (and I assume, many other Italian characters). Leon writes in English but has lived in Italy for many years, and the novels have been translated into other languages as well–just not Italian.

It’s not as if the Italians are not interested in them, but it comes down to the strange vanity of the author herself. She insists that they not be translated and the absurd reasoning is quoted all over the internet.

I don’t want to be famous. I don’t like being famous and I don’t want to be famous where I live. I just don’t like it. It doesn’t do anyone any good to be famous. I have enough. I don’t care. See this is what people find so confusing. I don’t care. I don’t care if the books get published in America. I don’t care if they get published. I just don’t. I have enough. I’m not interested — the idea of more has no importance to me. I don’t care.

Yes, all of the Italian publishers would kill to have them. I don’t want to be famous. I am spotted on the street by German, Austrian, French, Danish, everything… at least 3 or 4 time a day[.]

From a 2003 interview

I find this whole notion to be ridiculous. Unless you are Stephen King or JK Rowling, no one is spotting you 3 or 4 times a day.

Unlike some other European countries, English is not widespread in Italy and I deduce that her avoidance to have them translated into Italian alleviates the possibility that she would be critiqued by Italians. That she might be called out for aspects of her series that she wish to be hidden in the cloak of unreadability for an Italian audience.

Granted, yes, this is all speculation on my part as someone who hasn’t read a Donna Leon book. But still I became incredibly annoyed as she kept on insisting. As an avid reader, I often get bummed when an international book I’m interested in is not available in English or if an author has one book translated but not anymore from their oeuvre.

Some light Googling led me to a quote in The Independent,

“There’s the risk of falling into stereotypes, and Leon, despite the bonhomie of her Commissario Brunetti, is not exempt. It’s not for nothing that she doesn’t want her books translated into Italian,” wrote prominent Italian reviewer Ranieri Polese. 

I made the mistake of reading further into the aforementioned 2003 interview, and her answers to various questions carried on in the annoying vein. Perhaps, I am concentrating on minutiae, but really Donna Leon was very annoying.

 

The Strings of Murder by Oscar de Muriel

I must admit, I’m a sucker for period deduction, whether it be on TV or in fiction (even the odd non-fiction book). So, I was immediately intrigued by The Strings of Murder, the first novel in a series by Oscar de Muriel featuring the particular English inspector Ian Frey and his rougher colleague Detective McGray.

strings of murder

London is caught up in the Jack the Ripper murders, but the accomplished Inspector Frey has been dismissed from his post at Scotland Yard, his fiancee dumps him, and his family seems to nag him about everything. Finally, he is exiled to Edinburgh–a place he views as being inhabited completely by uncouth Scots–to assist in a murder investigation that might be similar if not identical to the Ripper killings.

What initially drew me was the premise of the murders: a violinist is found eviscerated in a locked room with possible occult signs. The violin, too, is reportedly having once belonged to the Devil and any subsequent owner meets an untimely and disemboweled death.

Promises of the strange and Satanic whet my appetite. The novel also starts out with an enigmatic and gruesome slaying of a family (some of the details drip out later in the plot). The opening is entirely intriguing, but it seems to not have much to do with anything; I’m curious if more information is vital in the subsequent pieces of the series.

I found myself flying through the book following along with the two “odd couple” inspectors. The initial crime is propelling enough and the fact that any other owner of the violin soon perishes is most interesting. However, about midway through, this reader felt as if she were tugging at a rope and not much more came out. The story and characters were, sadly, flat, which is disappointing as the story began so compellingly. It was as if the author cooked up an interesting few ideas in his creative mind, but never really did much with them or connected them. It is a hard task these days with so much top notch period detective entertainment.

With that said, the book wasn’t a disappointment. I don’t think I would carry on with the series as the characters didn’t develop much and the entire book felt like a never-ending series of witness and suspect interviews. What initially piqued my interest (the locked room, Devil violin, and occult) were never wholly formed.

This is a strange case to be sure, because I’m sure there will be plenty of readers who will love this book. Yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t one of them and just wanted the final page to come regardless the solution.

 

 

Jackaby by William Ritter

Jackaby by William Ritter

The year is 1892 and Abigail Rook, a young English woman struck by wanderlust sets sail to the New England town of New Fiddleham. Abigail is bored by what is expected of a young lady in the nineteenth century and would rather be digging up a dinosaur than moping around an English garden. When she arrives stateside, Abigail is in search of a job and lodgings when she sees a notice inquiring after an investigative assistant (“strong stomach preferred”). The placer of the ad is none other than Mr. R.F. Jackaby, a strange man who is part Sherlock Holmes, part Doctor Who, and part himself. He is an independent investigator who sees the extraordinary around every corner. When a series of murders begin to take place, Jackaby and Abigail are quick to start an independent investigation that differs greatly from the police’s own.

Debut novelist, William Ritter, has created an exquisite first novel that never becomes dull. It’s less about the killings and more about the peculiar personality of Jackaby. The solutions to problems can’t be what we expect. No, it must be a banshee or some other folklore creature. Abigail stumbles through her first case and is warned of the impending doom that might befall her by joining the odd detective (a former assistant has supposedly been changed into a duck, who still resides in Jackaby’s house).

Abigail is a droll narrator who finds the immense humor in the queer detective and her passion for a good adventure was entirely enjoyable. She makes the reader want to dash off with the strange man as they search for supernatural critters and serial killers.

Although, targeted for young readers, I was happy that I toed the line for this title. With the over-saturation of books targeting young readers (young adult, middle grade, what have you), it’s hard for one to stand out and Jackaby certainly does. The sentences are light and fly by. Ritter has respect for his readers and there is a refreshing literary quality about the book. The best books for children are ones that are also enjoyed by adults.

I couldn’t help but be stunned by the color blue that washes over this cover. I am a huge fan of cover art and I think this one is top-notch. Though, generally not a reader of books targeted for young readers, the synopsis and subsequently, the author’s excellent writing were enough to make me rave here about it. So go read it!

Jackaby will be released by Algonquin Books on September 16th.