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by Donna Leon
Harper, January 1995
278 pages
ISBN: 0061043370

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Color me Europhile. I enjoy mystery novels taking place in Europe, modern or ancient. That was one incentive for me to read Donna Leon's DEATH AT LA FENICE. The others were that it takes place in an opera house and in Venice, and my wife raved about it.

Maestro Helmut Wellauer, probably the world's greatest modern orchestra conductor, is found dead of cyanide poisoning between Acts 2 and 3 of LA TRAVIATA at Venice's La Fenice theater. (This real-life opera house recently burned down again, but like the phoenix for which it was named, it will undoubtedly arise again from its own ashes.) Suspects are not lacking for while almost everyone praised Wellauer's great talent, almost everyone personally hated his guts. Chief among the suspects are the maestro's much younger third wife, the soprano and her lesbian American secretary, the tenor, the baritone, the opera's artistic director, and an embittered opera singer of yesteryear, but they're not the only ones.

Investigating this crime is Commissario Guido Brunetti of the Venice police. An engaging and modest man in his forties, Brunetti has a charming wife and two children. He is one of the three highest detectives working under Vice-Questore Giuseppi Patta, a vain and pretentious man of limited intelligence, work ethic, or compassion. Brunetti has a sense of humor as we see when he learns that the singers are waiting to get their questioning over with. He asks, "Who was the most impatient?" When told it was the soprano, he responds, "Then we'll leave Signora Petrelli for the last."

We also see that Brunetti is well connected. His wife is the daughter of the very socially and economically prominent Count Falier, "who numbered two doges on his mother's side" and had contacts everywhere. This fact gives me pause on the character of Brunetti's boss, the Cavaliere Giuseppi Patta, who treats Brunetti rather like a peon. That seems inconsistent with Patta's penchant for sucking up to the rich and famous; however, as mentioned, he's not too bright.

We follow Brunetti through the delightful canals, campos, and piazzettas of Venice as he tries to sift the chaff from the grain in interviews with police technicians, suspects, and suppliers of peripheral information. As he narrows his investigation, he becomes convinced that the solution lies in the murdered man's past, a past that can be embarrassing for some of the suspects.

This was a first novel for Donna Leon, for which she was awarded Japan's Suntory prize, and I find that she subsequently wrote at least six more Commissario Brunetti mysteries. An American teacher at a U.S. military base near Venice, she writes in the third person with the fluency of a practiced wordsmith, enviable knowledge of Venice, and an interesting commentary that is at times lightly philosophical. The story moves along with leisurely speed over the more interesting parts and briskly over the necessarily drier parts. I'll want to read more of the Brunetti mysteries, expecting that they'll fulfil the promise of this one. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, July 2002

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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