For more than 25 years, Montclair, N.J.-born novelist Donna Leon's name has been inextricably connected to Venice, Italy, her adopted home and the setting of her wildly successful Commissario Brunetti mystery series.
That is, until the tourists all but drove her out.
"The city gets 30 million tourists a year. And only 58,000 people live there," Leon said Wednesday in a phone interview from Switzerland. "You can't walk down the street."
Leon, 73, is celebrating a milestone: the publication this month of the 25th Brunetti novel, The Waters of Eternal Youth, which has the commissario investigating a 15-year-old drowning case. She will read from the book at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Moore College of Art and Design.
"I'm in Zurich right now, where I've had a place for 10 years," Leon said, "and I also have a place at the foot of the mountains" near the Italian-Swiss border.
But Leon insists she will never stop loving Venice, where she visits each month, staying longer during the off-season. "Anyway," she said, "most of my friends are there."
Venice is part of Leon's character, her DNA. It's the city that finally convinced her at age 40 to settle down and give up her years of restless wandering across Europe and the Middle East.
Venice gave her a chance to pursue her life-long passion: baroque opera. Today, she helps support an orchestra, often traveling with it and writing its program notes. Opera, Leon said, is an almost spiritual experience.
"I think I'm so passionate about it because it's something I can't do," she said. "I can't sing and I can't read music. I'm in awe of it."
In Venice, Leon made ends meet by teaching English. She tried her hand at writing a novel when she was well into her 40s, publishing the first Brunetti book, Death at La Fenice, in 1992.
The books quickly became an international hit. Today, they've been translated into 34 languages - but not Italian. (Leon has said she didn't want to insult Italians by presuming to tell them about their own identity, their values and culture.)
The series has even spawned a German TV adaptation that has attracted a healthy fan base in America, where it's available on DVD.
Leon isn't a fan.
"It's so German," she said. "The characters don't look Italian, don't dress Italian, don't move like Italians. They all stand at a very Germanic distance from each other."
Italians talk with their hands, their arms, their bodies, Leon said. They touch each other, they're in one another's faces.
Leon's characters do feel awfully Italian on the page. They're effusive. Passionate, joyful. That includes her main character, police detective Guido Brunetti, a Venetian native fiercely protective of his town.
Leon's success derives in large part from Brunetti's singular personality. Charming, well-adjusted, well-read, and happily married, Brunetti is an oddity in a genre populated by cops so full of shame, guilt, or regret they wear their emotional scars as badges of honor.
"The dark, tortured detective never appealed to me, even as a reader," said Leon. "Brunetti is a . . . decent person and a sympathetic person who has real curiosity about people."
He also possesses a keen sense of morality and a reckless tendency to speak truth to power, which has hurt his chances of advancement. In a country rife with corruption, he is an incorruptible official who can't abide injustice. He lives in a gorgeous flat with a nice deck overlooking the city with his wife, Paola, and their teen children, Raffaele and Chiara.
The stories are filled with references to and discussions of Victorian and modern British literature: Paola is a Henry James scholar who teaches English literature at the university.
"The reason I made her a professor of English literature is that it gives me a chance to show off," said Leon, who turned to writing after doing graduate studies in English literature. ("Well, I also show off with Brunetti. If I'm rereading Herodotus . . . I'll have Brunetti read him in the novel.")
Before she discovered Venice and Brunetti, Leon was training to become a scholar. Raised in Montclair and Clifton, N.J., where her grandfather had a dairy farm, Leon graduated from the University of Indiana and began graduate studies at the University of Massachusetts with a sojourn at the University of Siena in Italy.
She never finished her dissertation on Jane Austen. And she has a great excuse. She worked on it while living in Iran, where she taught English to helicopter pilots. ("I also got to play a lot of tennis.") The 1979 Islamic Revolution ended her four-year stay and effectively killed her academic carer.
"My almost-finished dissertation was confiscated by [the authorities], who also took all my books and notes," Leon said. "When I got back, I had to make a decision: Start all over again or kiss the whole thing off."
Leon said abandoning her Ph.D was a blessing.
"I was saved from becoming an academic," she said. "I do see it as a salvation."
Donna Leon, "The Waters of Eternal Youth - A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery"
7:30 p.m. Monday at Moore College of Art and Design, 20th Street and the Parkway.