Category Archives: Elettra Zorzi

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