How NJ Native Donna Leon Became an International Bestselling Author

Leon, 79, recently published "Give Unto Others"—the 31st book in her beloved Commissario Brunetti detective series.

Headshot of Donna Leon, author of the Commissario Brunetti detective series.
The trajectory of Donna Leon's life changed when a former college classmate invited her on a trip to Italy. Photo courtesy of Regine Mosimann

For Donna Leon, author of the bestselling Commissario Brunetti detective series set in Venice, the journey to writing novels with an Italian setting was serendipitous.

She was born in Montclair and grew up in Bloomfield, attending Mount St. Dominic Academy high school in Caldwell. After completing her undergraduate degree in English at Caldwell College, she was deciding what to do next when a former classmate invited Leon to join her in Italy, where she planned to study painting. It was the 1960s, and it was frowned upon for young women to travel abroad alone, so Leon was recruited to join her. They landed in Venice and, upon arriving in that beautiful city, she fell in love.

“On the first day, I was converted just by the air. I have no Italian heritage at all, and I just thought, This is the place I want to be,” remembers Leon, who grew up in an Irish-American family.

Illustration of a woman in a pool float reading a "Give Unto Others" by Donna Leon.

Give Unto Others, the latest book in Donna Leon’s detective series, is one of our top summer reads. Illustration by Kotryna Zukauskaite

Years later, after Leon had traveled around the world teaching English, she ended up back in Venice. By then, she’d become an opera lover and had befriended the conductor of the famous Venetian Opera House, Teatro La Fenice. While chatting in his green room one day, they began to muse about how someone could kill a conductor in their dressing room and how the murder would take place.

Leon was captivated by the idea and started writing. When she finished the novel, she submitted it to a writing contest in Japan that she’d read about—and was surprised to learn that she’d won.

Soon after, her book was published in the United States and Germany, and by her fourth Commissario Brunetti novel, Leon had been picked up by a Swiss publisher and become an international sensation.

Leon, 79, now lives in a small village in Switzerland; she says the pollution and crowds in Venice became too much for her. This spring, she published her 31st book in the series: Give Unto Others (Grove Atlantic), a mystery that begins with a seemingly innocent request from a friend, and leads Commissario Brunetti into danger.

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