February 11, 2012
Death at La Fenice
Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon
Guido Brunetti Series #1
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)
There is little violent crime in Venice, a serenely beautiful floating city of mystery and magic, history and decay. But the evil that does rear its head on occasion is the jurisdiction of Guido Brunetti, the suave, urbane vice-commissario of police and a genius at detection. Now all of his admirable abilities must come into play in the deadly affair of Maestro Helmut Wellauer, a world-renowned conductor who died painfully from cyanide poisoning during intermission at La Fenice. But as the investigation unfolds, a chilling picture slowly begins to take shape—a detailed portrait of revenge painted with vivid strokes of hatred and shocking depravity. And the dilemma for Guido Brunetti will not be finding a murder suspect…but, rather, narrowing the choice down to one.
“A splendid series…With a backdrop of the city so vivid you can almost smell it.” Sunday Telegraph (London)
It’s been almost five years since I first heard about Donna Leon’s “Venice” series. I was chatting with a customer about some of my favorite mysteries writers and he asked if I had ever read any of Leon’s mysteries. When I told him I hadn’t, he practically insisted I stop reading my current book and immediately start in on the Guido Brunetti series. I’m sorry to say I only made a mental note to give the book a try, but I have Bellezza to thank for giving me the incentive to finally pick up this literary mystery.
Guido. What a great name. Move over, Lucas Davenport. I’ve found a new love. ;)
Guido Brunetti, a commissario of the police for the city, was first through the door…He was a surprisingly neat man: tie carefully knotted, hair shorter than was the fashion; even his ears lay close to his head, as if reluctant to call attention to themselves. His clothing marked him as Italian. The cadence of his speech announced that he was Venetian. His eyes were all policeman.
Brunetti has a wry sense of humor and I enjoyed the conversations (as well as his internal monologue) between him and his supervisor, Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta.
“It sounds like you’re making excuses for her,” said Patta, then added, “Is she pretty?” Brunetti realized Patta must have found about the difference in age between the dead man and his widow.
“If you like tall blonds,” Brunetti said.
“My wife doesn’t permit me to, sir.”
“Now pay attention, Brunetti.” Brunetti nodded. “I want the name of anyone who was in the dressing room, or near it, last night. And I want to find out more about the wife. How long they’ve been married, where she comes from, that sort of thing.” Brunetti nodded.
“Brunetti?” Patta suddenly asked.
“Why aren’t you taking notes?”
Brunetti permitted himself the smallest of smiles. “Oh, I never forget anything you say, sir.”
I also enjoyed peeking into Brunetti’s personal life:
He opened the door, glad of the warmth and smell he associated with the apartment: lavender, wax, the scent of something cooking in the kitchen at the back; it was a mixture that represented to him, in a way he couldn’t explain, the existence of sanity in the daily madness that was his work.
“Is that you, Guido?” Paola called from the living room. He wondered who else she might be expecting at two in the morning, but he didn’t ask.
On Venetian commerce:
A half hour before his appointment with Signora Wellauer, he left his office and walked slowly up toward Piazza San Marco. Along the way, he paused to look into shop windows, shocked, as he always was when in the center of the city, by how quickly their composition was changing. It seemed to him that all the shops that served the native population—pharmacies, shoemakers, groceries—were slowly and inexorably disappearing, replaced by slick boutiques and souvenir shops that catered to the tourists, filled with luminescent plastic gondolas from Taiwan and papier-mache masks from Hong Kong. It was the desires of the transients, not the needs of the residents, that the city’s merchants answered. He wondered how long it would take before the entire city became a sort of living museum, a place fit only for visiting and not for inhabiting.
On Venetian crime:
Brunetti often mused that the crime rate in Venice was low—one of the lowest in Europe and certainly the lowest in Italy—because the criminals, and they were almost always thieves, simply didn’t know how to get away. Only a resident could navigate the spiderweb of narrow calles, could know in advance that this one was a dead end or that one ended in a canal. And the Venetians, the native population, tended to be law-abiding, if only because their tradition and history had given them an excessive respect for the rights of private property and the imperative need to see to its safekeeping. So there was very little crime, and when there was an act of violence or, much more rarely, a murder, the criminal was quickly and easily found: the husband, the neighbor, the business partner. Usually all they had to do was round up the usual suspects.
On Venice, the city:
Brunetti walked up toward the hotel, still lighted, even at this hour when the rest of the city was darkened and sleeping. 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 Grand Canal, obscured the cracks in the walls of churches, and covered the patches of plaster missing from the facades of public buildings. Like many women of a certain age, the city needed the help of deceptive light to recapture her vanished beauty. A boat that, during the day, was making a delivery of soap powder or cabbages, at night became a numinous form, floating toward some mysterious destination. The fogs that were common in these winter days could transform people and objects, even turn long-haired teenagers, hanging around a street corner and sharing a cigarette, into mysterious phantoms from the past.
I thought it was terrific read and can’t wait to return to Venice and see what’s in store for Guido. (Did I already mention that I love that name? And what a likeable character!)
Final thoughts: Quite the page-turner, Donna Leon’s debut mystery is satisfying and a series that I’m anxious to continue reading.
Books added to my TBR list:
The Teatro Fenice has a remarkable history. It was first constructed after a fire destroyed Venice's leading opera house, the San Benedetto Theatre, in 1774. Bearing an appropriate name, La Fenice (The Phoenix) was inaugurated on May 16, 1792. During the 19th century, La Fenice housed the three great Italian composers of the period: Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti's work all premiered there. Tragically, a fire in December 1836 razed the building to the ground, but it was rebuilt and opened again in December 1837. La Fenice's international renown was firmly established when it initiated the First International Festival of Contemporary Music in 1930. Fate struck again in 1996 when another fire claimed the building. At last the restoration work is complete and La Fenice has once again been raised from its ashes and restored to its former glory! (Information from Divento)
More cover art for Death at La Fenice: