An odd couple: John O’Hara and Donna Leon

John O’Hara, New York Stories (Vintage paperback, 2018). Donna Leon, Death at La Fenice (Arrow paperback, 2004; first published 1992)

Recently I’ve found it hard to concentrate on reading. This is strange, given that we now find ourselves with unusual amounts of unconstrained time on our hands. Maybe it’s because I’m so preoccupied with the anxieties and stress caused by the pandemic. People I know have been infected. Our daughter works in the NHS. Yesterday I went to the local hospital for an MRI scan, and it felt like entering a war zone: security guards at the entrances, no visitors, face masks compulsory, staff hidden behind PPE.

Before the limits on travel were introduced nearly a month ago I’d started reading John O’Hara’s New York Stories. I thought the short form would be less demanding in terms of concentration required. I was wrong.

Front covers of O'Hara, New York Stories, and Leon, Death at La FeniceThere are 32 stories in the collection, with publication dates ranging from the early 1930s to after O’Hara’s death in 1970 (he was born in 1905). They range widely in length, too, from what might now be called flash fiction – vignettes of just a couple of pages or so, which are often very well done – to a 58-page novella ‘We’re Friends Again’. They’re not arranged chronologically or thematically, but alphabetically by title. Steven Goldleaf in the Introduction believes this was to enable the stories to stand on their own merits – the consistency of which O’Hara was said to be very proud of.

I found them pretty uneven, and mostly unsavoury. There’s some good stuff here, but also a seediness that swerves into nastiness. Perhaps it’s the gritty competitiveness of metropolitan life that he explores, but the stories weren’t to my taste. They lack humour, too. Some are quite funny, but that’s another thing. Businessmen play cruel tricks on each other, or bicker viciously. Showbiz types scratch and grumble. Society ladies and guys who frequent swish clubs display a mix of snobbery and ennui, duplicity and venom. Married couples spar and dissimulate. There’s a lot of cheating – in the trickery and sexual senses.

Many have puzzling qualities, with some enigmatic endings. This elliptical approach to short fiction became a hallmark of The New Yorker magazine, where most of these stories first appeared (according to Goldleaf, again). I ended many of them with a ‘so what’ feeling.

I gave Mrs TD a copy of Donna Leon’s first Commissario Brunetti crime novel, Death at La Fenice, for her birthday. She enjoyed it, and recommended it to me. It was a good choice for a lockdown – in my restless mood I found it pleasantly diverting.

I chose it largely because we visited Venice – where all of this series of crime novels is set – around this time last year, and we loved it. Leon is very good at capturing the beauty and squalor of this city. The plot concerns the demise of a world-famous conductor at the eponymous Venetian opera house during a performance, and Brunetti’s quest to find out how and why he died.

As with most fiction of this genre, a group of prime suspects (and red herrings) is produced, and the clever Brunetti has to use all his skill to figure how the unpleasant German conductor came to die of poisoning. In this respect it’s a fairly undistinguished narrative. Much of the pleasure in reading it comes from the pungently evoked city setting I mentioned earlier (although there was sometimes just a bit too much map-reading detail of the ‘he turned left up the Zattere and crossed bridge so-and-so into campo X’ type), and the range of quirky, sympathetically drawn characters, some of whom provide warm humour. Most of the characters are convincingly flawed and human.

Brunetti’s family, for example, is vividly portrayed: his smart, resourceful teacher wife Paola and two teenage kids – a feisty girl and sulky, rebellious boy. There are some terrific scenes in which Brunetti visits an arthritic, suspicious old woman, now living in squalor, but a famous opera singer in her youth. Her back story is tragic, and crucial in Brunetti’s unravelling of the mystery. It brings out the horrors and shame of the Nazi era, and Italy’s subsequent history of corruption and graft beneath a veneer of sophistication and culture.

I also liked the way Leon depicts the ineptitude and vanity of the officers who work for Brunetti, and his preening, manipulative and ultimately useless boss. This is why he has to rely solely on his own intuitions and eye for detail to solve the crime. He’s not a deductive genius like Holmes, or puzzle-solver like Morse, or even a psychologist like Poirot (I hope I’ve got all that right: I’m not well versed in crime fiction). Instead he’s just an intelligent, observant and hard-working man with a good set of instincts and deep sympathy for suffering humanity.

There are over twenty titles in this sequence of Brunetti stories. I may well try another if my inability to focus on anything more demanding continues.