The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Donna Leon’s Elettra Zorzi

Well, we’ve done it! The Crime Fiction Alphabet has reached the end of our treacherous trek through the letters of the alphabet. Before I go any further, let me stop a moment and say thanks to our tour guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. Her blog is not just the ‘Information Desk’ for this meme; it’s a terrific set of reviews, other memes, information and more about crime fiction. If you love crime fiction, Kerrie’s blog really needs to be on your blogroll. Kerrie’s also the co-host of Fair Dinkum Crime, which is the source for information and reviews of Australian crime fiction.

Now on to our last gathering before we all pack up and go home. This week we are at the Castle of Z Resort. While everyone’s getting ready to go down and celebrate our trip with a final dinner, I’ll share my contribution: Donna Leon’s Elettra Zorzi.

Usually known as Signorina Elettra, she is the assistant to Giuseppe Patta, Vice-Questore for the Venice Questura. As such, she works closely with Leon’s main sleuth Commissario Guido Brunetti. Vice-Questore  Patta may have the authority at the questura but it’s Signorina Elettra who really runs the establishment and everyone knows that. She allocates resources, manages the bureaucratic details of police activity and serves as a buffer between her boss and the outside world.

But for all of that de facto power and authority, Signorina Elettra is neither rude nor arrogant, and that’s part of what makes her appealing. She can and does make things happen or not happen at the questura, and sometimes her ability to do that seems almost miraculous. But she generally remains pleasant, helpful and professional.

But make no mistake: Signorina Elettra is no pushover. As I said, she is the real driving force of the questura, and she finds ways to make things work. For example, in Blood From a Stone, Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello are investigating the execution-style shooting of a Senegalese immigrant. At one point, Patta warns Brunetti about continuing the investigation, since it may lead to some highly-placed people whom Patta doesn’t want to implicate. For his part, Brunetti doesn’t want to just pay lip service to this investigation. He thinks he can manage the task of finding out the real truth without upsetting his boss, but he is concerned that Patta may give the investigation to Lieutenant Scarpa, who is a sycophantic enough to do exactly what Patta wants, which is only pretend to investigate. When Brunetti mentions his concern to Sgnorina Elettra, she comes up with the perfect solution, which she then arranges. Scarpa will be sent to a special three-week training course offered by Interpol. It’ll make Scarpa think he’s getting special treatment and keep him out of the way so that Brunetti can continue to investigate.

Another example of SIgnorina Elettra’s skill at getting things done comes in About Face, in which Brunetti and Vianello investigate the murder of a trucking company owner and its connection to illegal toxic waste transportation and storage. In a sub-plot of this story, Signorina Elettra wants the questura to have a recycling program. To implement that, she needs the local garbage collection company to co-operate. She also needs her boss’ support. So in a brilliant two-pronged approach, she ensures that both things will happen. First, she convinces the garbage collection company to alter its schedule so that recyclables are picked up promptly from the questura. Here’s how she does that:


‘Brunetti had once heard her [Signorina Elettra] on the phone with the president of Vesta, the private company which had been awarded…the contract to collect garbage in the city, and he still recalled the exquisite politeness with which she called to his attention the many ways in which a police investigation or, worse, one from the Guardia di Finanza, could impede the easy running of his company and how expensive and troublesome could be the unexpected discoveries to which an official financial investigation often led.’


Then, she persuades Patta of the publicity advantages of being seen as caring about the environment. She has a local journalist and a camera team come to the questura, interview Patta about recycling efforts and show pictures of him disposing of paper in the paper recycling bin. And she does all of this without being what most people would call pushy or aggressive.

Recycling is only one of Signorina Elettra’s environmentally-aware projects. She loves her city and doesn’t want to see it overwhelmed by toxic waste or environmentally-destructive policies. So in novels such as Through a Glass, Darkly, in which Brunetti and Vianello investigate toxic-waste dumping at local glass-blowing factories, she’s only too happy to help. She’s no more a fan of corruption and greed than she is of toxic waste, and she is no respecter of class or money. So Brunetti and Vianello find in her a willing ally as they investigate crime at the highest levels of Venice society.

And Signorina Elettra is well-connected enough to find out anything that either of the two police sleuths needs to do the job. She knows people in every government department, in many law firms and in lots of other places too. So even when ‘official’ or big-money doors are metaphorically shut she can almost always find a way to get access to important people.

For those situations in which Signorina Elettra doesn’t happen to know the right person, she relies on her computer wizardry. She is an expert at computer research, databases and getting information that – er – isn’t exactly available to the public. In many of the novels in this series, Brunetti finds that all he has to do is ask Signorina Elettra for background information or data and almost before he knows it, he gets what he needs. She knows that Brunetti and Vianello want to do their jobs well and that they are good cops. She also knows that they can be trusted and the feeling is mutual. So the three are strong allies as Brunetti and Vianello investigate their cases.

Signorina Elettra is independent, a strong character and a highly skilled administrator and computer expert. She’s also friendly, professional and courteous. She always manages to get things done without raising her voice. In fact, many times she gets what she wants without the other person even being aware of what she’s really doing. And that takes skill. If I worked at Donna Leon’s Venice questura, I would do everything I could to make sure I was in Signorina Elettra’s good graces – and not because of intimidation either.


Time to go down to dinner and then pack to go home. It’s been a lovely trip – thanks, Kerrie!


Filed under Donna Leon, Elettra Zorzi

24 responses to “The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Donna Leon’s Elettra Zorzi

  1. kathy d.

    Great to do a post about Elettra Zorzi. She’s certainly one of my favorite characters in the Donna Leon series, and in crime fiction in general. She is very smart, resourceful and has skills no one else in the Questura has — and probably very few people in Venice have.
    She manages to run the police station behind the scenes without her boss knowing it, although Brunetti and Vianello know it. She also dresses beautifully every day, and in some way, maneuvers the budget so that she buys gorgeous flowers for the office on a regular basis.
    Lately, Brunetti has questioned some of her purchases and computer doings, but he drops the questions as soon as he ponders them.
    In Beastly Things, Elettra finds out financial information about some suspects through her connections and computer skills.
    She is admirable and extraordinary. Only wish there were books more devoted to her character. There is one, but more would be appreciated by fans of this great series.

    • Kathy – I’m glad you enjoyed this post. Signorina Elettra certainly is a skilled and resourceful person. And personally, I’m glad that Leon is honest about the implications of some of the things that Signorina Elettra does. That said though, she is definitely ‘on the side of the angels’ and yes, Brunetti and Vianello rely heavily on her. And you have a good point: I’d like a little more attention paid to her, too.

  2. I love Signorina Elettra – couldn’t remember she was a Z, but am really glad you mentioned her!

  3. Great pick for Z, Margot! And congratulations on completing the meme…challenging to find good entries for each letter of the alphabet. 🙂

  4. Anne H

    A terrific pick for Z. I’m another one who’d forgotten Signorina Elettra’s surname. She’s always been a favourite character of mine, not least for the way she deals with the egregious Patta, which is as brilliant as her dress sense and her love of flowers. I’m never bothered by the way she uses her computer skills for fighting crime: the bad guys use any methods they can to achieve their ends.

    • Anne – You make a good point about the ‘bad guys.’ One can certainly justify what Signorina Elettra does if one thinks about the end results. And I completely agree about her remarkable skill at dealing with Patta. And yes, I wish I had her clothes sense…

  5. Another delightful entry in this fun meme. I’ve enjoyed each one even though I haven’t told you so each time as I should have. You always have such a variety to your selections. I hate to see this end. Maybe you and Kerrie should get together something pertaining to the 12 Days of Christmas. Just a thought. 🙂

    Thoughts in Progress

    • Mason – That’s very kind of you 🙂 – Thank you! The meme has been an awful lot of fun I must say. And you’ve an interesting idea – a meme with numbers… Hmmm… I like it!

  6. I was wondering who you would pick for Z – I hadn’t thought of Signorina Elettra! Great post which has reminded me that I should find more of Donna Leon’s books.

    • Margaret – Thank you 🙂 – And I know exactly what you mean about authors whose work one ought to read more. I’ve gotten some terrific reminders like that from your posts in this meme too. Sometimes I wish there were more than 24 hours in a day, so there’d be more time for reading.

  7. Well done on reaching the end of the alphabet Margot! I have so far resisted reading the Leon novels, probably because I can imagine getting all hot and bothered if I find the details of Italian life incorrect (or even worse, spelled incorrectly!). Having said that, you are certainly making the series sound tempting so I may just have to abandon my prejudices (darn it). Thanks.

    • Sergio – Why thank you, and well done to you on the meme too. Never having lived in Venice or any other part of Italy, I can’t vouch for the novels’ authenticity. But if it makes sense, they certainly feel authentic. I understand that Leon has lived in Venice for 25 years, so hopefully those details are right. If you do get the chance to read some of her work, I hope you’ll like it.

  8. I have only read the first two of the Donna Leon series and it has been a while for those. Don’t remember much about this character. I am planning on continuing on with the series in 2013 so I will be looking forward to paying particular attention to Signorina Elettra.

    I have been away on vacation and missed a lot of your posts. Hope to come back to them when I can find time.

    • Tracy – I hope you enjoyed your vacation. It’s always nice to get away for a bit. I hope that, if you get the chance to pick up the series, you’ll like what you read about Signorina Elettra. I admit to being biased but I like her character very much.

  9. does signorita elettra successfully seduce briunetti>

  10. Maureen Keck

    Signorina Elletra is one of the more fascinating among the vivid characters in Donna Leon’s engrossing series. I have read eight of the books and would love to find the one that introduces her.
    – adn as for authenticity, I follow the Commissario et al around Venice on Google maps and kept hoping to see him rounding every corner when we were in La Serenissima last year.

    • Lucky you, Maureen, to have the chance to visit La Serenissima! I agree with you, too, that Leon depicts Venice in a very authentic way. You really feel that you’re there, if I can put it that way. You’re right that Signorina Elettra is a terrific character, too. I believe she makes her debut in Dressed For Death. If I’m right, you could ‘meet’ her there.

  11. Karen Lyon

    I am such a Donna Leon fan! I discovered her books through the German-produced series PBS based on her novels. One of my PBS stations carried it for a bit — how could that not grab your attention, with the setting in Venice and the dialogue in German? Mysteries have been my favorite genre practically from when I started to read, so I looked into her books, put A Death at La Fenice on my Kindle, and was hooked by the end of Chapter 1. Not all of the books in the series grab me, but I love, love, love Signorina Elettra. For those of you who want to know more about her, A Sea of Troubles is really well done and develops her character quite a bit more. I am reading A Death in a Strange Country right now, and I love it, but she’s not in it, and she’s sorely missed. I hope Donna hasn’t gotten rid of her! Patta and Scarpa can go — there will always be corruption, graft, and greed for Guido Brunetti to battle against without them. But Signorina Elettra: if she goes, I will cry!

    • Signorina Elettra is a terrific character, isn’t she, Karen? I like her very much. It’s interesting how a character who’s not as much a major character turns out to be so important to a series. And I do like the way the series has developed over time. Thanks for your insights about A Sea of Troubles and A Death in a Strange Country.

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