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.