Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon is an engaging mystery, where setting and plot fit hand in hand. This is not the first I’ve read in this series, although it is the one that began it all, so I fully expected to enjoy it, as I did.

Internationally renowned German conductor Helmut Wellauer was performing La Traviata at Teatro La Fenice when he failed to come out for the second act. After being asked if there is a doctor in the house, Dr. Rizzardi enters the maestro’s dressing room to find Helmut dead. Since this is Venice, the police arrive by boat rather quickly.  Police Vice-Commissario Guido Brunetti leads the  investigation into the cyanide poisoning of the conductor.  Suspects abound from the victim’s much younger wife to musical peers and rivals.  Soon Brunetti learns that  Helmut has destroyed several singers’ careers through the years, including a trio of young women.  With no help from his boss or assistants, Brunetti still manages, with calmness, tact and persistence to search through the maestro’s past to find the killer in the present.
Teatro La Fenice
Teatro La Fenice

Leon does a fabulous job at setting, she makes Venice come alive, good and bad. She made me fall in love with Venice a while ago, but it’s because her stories are fully centered there. They wouldn’t be the same set anywhere else. And her Venice is romantic and artisitc, but also corrupted and historic.

Once the capital of the dissipations of a continent, Venice had become a sleepy provincial town that virtually ceased to exist after nine or ten at night. During the summer months, she could remember her courtesan past and sparkle, as long as the tourists paid and the good weather held, but in the winter, she became a tired old crone, eager to crawl early to bed, leaving her deserted streets to cats and memories of the past.

But these were the hours when, for Brunetti, the city became most beautiful, just as they were the same hours when he, Venetian to the bone, could sense some of her past glory. The darkness of the night hid the moss that crept up the steps of the palazzi lining the Garnd Canal, obscured the cracks in the walls of churches, and covered the patches of plaster missing from the facaes of public buildings. Like many women of a certain age, the city needed the help of deceptive light to recapture her vanished beauty.

Leon also has a great insight into people and relationships. Guido and his wife have an easy marriage, they share their good times, discuss their problems. His in-laws however, are another story. They come from a higher social class than Brunetti’s and the tension, even after all the years, is still there just under the surface. They’re kind enough to each other, and helpful, but there’s still a distance. Brunetti’s connection with his own children is portrayed realistically. All of the characters feel real, actually, as does the dialogue, not silted or manufactured solely for the plot. The characters are fully drawn, which is important if a mystery is really going to catch my attention. The opera singer and her lover are especially captivating, more so for me probably because I had already met them in Aqua Alta.

Brunetti is in most ways your standard fictional detecitve. Smart, witty, compassionate, a basically honest man doing his best in a system that is often more intereted in politics than justice.

The characters feel like living, breathing people. The mystery has its share of twists and turn, and I only guessed at a piece of the solution. And Venice is just a fascinating setting, a character in its own right. A great start to a series I return to again and again.

4 out of 5 stars

Venice in February  is hosted by Snow Feathers and Dolce Bellezza.

Category: Mystery & Detective- Police Procedural

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Commissario Guido Brunetti #1
First published 1992
270 pages

Book source: Library

Commissariou Guido Brunetti Series

  1. Death  at La Fenice
  2. Death in a Strange Country
  3. Dressed for Death (APA: The Anonymous Venetian)
  4. Death and Judgment (APA: A Venetian Reckoning)
  5. Acqua Alta (APA: Death in High Water)
  6. Death of Faith (APA: Quietly in Their Sleep)
  7. A Noble Radiance
  8. Fatal Remedies
  9. Friends in High Places
  10. A Sea of Troubles
  11. Wilfull Behavior
  12. Uniform Justice
  13. Doctored Evidence
  14. Blood from a Stone
  15. Through a Glass Darkly
  16. Suffer the Little Children
  17. The Girl of His Dreams
  18. About Face
  19. A Question of Belief
  20. Drawing Conclusions