Arrow Books, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Donna Leon, Fiction, Publisher, Setting, Venice

‘Death at La Fenice’ by Donna Leon


Fiction – paperback; Arrow Books; 338  pages; 2004.

Until very recently I was not aware that Donna Leon’s books were set in Venice. I had seen her books cluttering shelves in every book store I’ve ever haunted but for some weird reason I had never been inclined to pick one up, much less read one. Silly me.

Death at La Fenice, first published in 1992, introduces us to Leon’s creation, the quiet family man and police detective Guido Brunetti. It also introduces us to the mysterious, romantic beauty of Venice’s canals and alleyways, her bridges, beautiful buildings and sense of history.

In this crime tale, Brunetti investigates the murder of a German conductor, Maestro Helmut Wellauer, who is poisoned during a break in the performance of the opera La Traviata at the world famous opera house La Fenice*.

Wellauer, much admired in classical music and opera circles, has clocked up many enemies because of his right-wing views, homophobia and extra-marital affairs. But who was motivated enough to kill him? This is what Brunetti must find out.

I quite enjoyed this book, although I feel it suffered somewhat because I was reading Arnaldur Indriðason’s Tainted Blood at the same time, and the two books, while crime novels, really shouldn’t be compared.

Leon’s novel was more pedestrian and written in a slightly old-fashioned way, in the sense that the story moved forward chapter by chapter with little back story and no parallel narrative. Her main character, Brunetti, was far less flawed and troubled than Tainted Blood’s Inspector Erlendur and hence seemed less developed (although I’m sure with nine other books in the series, there’s plenty of time for him to evolve).

All in all, Death at La Fenice was an enjoyable romp through Venice, even if I did guess the ending long before it was revealed. I’ll be intrigued to read more books in Leon’s series.

* The same opera house that burned down in 1996 and was the focus of John Berendt’s recent non-fiction book City of Falling Angels, also reviewed on this site.

12 thoughts on “‘Death at La Fenice’ by Donna Leon”

  1. Cheers, iliana.
    I know a place where I can pick these books up secondhand for a good price, so I will definitely read more.
    According to wikipedia, this is the order of her books:
    * Death at La Fenice (1992)
    * Death in a Strange Country (1993)
    * The Anonymous Venetian (1994) aka Dressed for Death
    * A Venetian Reckoning (1995) aka Death and Judgment
    * Acqua Alta (1996) aka Death in High Water
    * Death of Faith (1997)
    * A Noble Radiance (1997)
    * Fatal Remedies (1999)
    * Friends in High Places (2000)
    * A Sea of Troubles (2001)
    * Wilful Behaviour (2002)
    * Uniform Justice (2003)
    * Doctored Evidence (2004)
    * Blood from a Stone (2005)
    * Through a Glass Darkly (2006)
    Although I’m not sure whether it is completely necessary to read them in order…


  2. I’ve read them all and I like the complicated morality of Leon’s novels, the good are not always victorious. I tried to read them in their proper order and I do think it makes a difference. I’ve just finished reading Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series and they definitely should be read in their proper order (even though he says they don’t have to be!). Sometimes I think it’s worth discovering a crime writer later, when all the books in the series are published, and you can totally immerse yourself in the whole series.
    However, for my own sanity, I need a break from murders. I’m starting to view the world too suspiciously!


  3. Pomgirl, funnily enough I received Henning Mankell’s first book in the post today. Julia, who comments here regularly, recommended him to me – I mistakenly thought I’d tried to read his stuff before, but I realise now I was thinking of someone else, so I ordered “Faceless Killers” on Amazon on the weekend. Looking forward to reading it… I’m going through a crime phase right now, particularly Scandinavian thrillers.


  4. Mankell is fab. I also recently enjoyed The Depths of the Forest by Eugenio Fuentes, a Spanish crime writer. I’m going to have a wee break from crime writing and then order the Icelandic crime novel you recently reviewed.


  5. Pomgirl, thanks for the Fuentes tip off. I’ve looked it up on Amazon and it has received nothing but GLOWING reviews. Another to add to my list, by the sounds of things!


  6. I totally agree, PomGirl, it is rather wonderfully gluttonous to discover an author who has been at it a bit! So you have a treasure trove of back catalogue to work through!
    I’m an Inspector Brunetti fan. I tend to get more caught up in his home life and his wonderful wife, than the gentle mysteries he unravels. I think one of the reason I like his wife so much is that she teached Literature so the series is peppered with little gems.


  7. I have read Mankell as I have found them, rather than in order, but I think in order would have been better. I’ll see if my (rather impoverished) local library has any Leons and give her a burl.


  8. The fourth Wallander book in the series, or it might have been the third, can’t remember, was actually translated and published last, so they obviously don’t think they need to be read in order. I think it’s a real pity, the character develops so much.
    I love the mundane details about Wallender’s life, that he gets tired, his battle with his weight, his bowel movements!
    I just finished reading the first book in the series featuring Wallander’s daughter and thought it was terrible, so disappointing.


  9. I’m taking this with me to Venice along with a bunch of others. I heard that some of her books are good but that you don’t necessarily need to read them in order but I have to start at the start!! I’m sure it will be an enjoyable romp of a crime novel as you say…


  10. Oh, lucky you going to Venice. I’ve been twice and hope to go back again this year. It will be wonderful in January — the off-season is always so much more romantic than the crowds and stink of the summer! Hope you enjoy the book. I have to say I’ve only ever read about three of Leon’s books and I’m not inclined to read any more. They are good, holiday reading though!
    PS> I have a Venice category on this blog if you haven’t already found it. See:


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