Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon (HarperCollins, 1992) is the first in the police procedural mystery series with Guido Brunetti, a police commissario in contemporary Venice, Italy. Brunetti’s adventures occupy 28 volumes thus far, with one released every year since Brunetti initially appeared in 1992.
At a performance of Traviata at Venice’s opera house, the internationally famous and temperamental conductor Helmut Wellauer fails to return to lead the second act. Cautious investigation by the theatre’s artistic director reveals the maestro dead in his dressing room. The sharp odor of bitter almonds proclaims the presence of cyanide in the coffee spilled down the conductor’s white shirt front.
Police soon swarm the back stage, directed by Commissario Brunetti. Brunetti is struck by the brief window of opportunity for the killer—during the opera’s intermission!--and by the number of people known to have visited him in that short time. At first he believes the motive lies within the conductor’s professional past and uses his considerable contacts to mine the gossip about Wellauer’s lengthy career. His ability to continue to perform during World War II, when the arts were severely politicized in occupied Europe, was of particular interest. Then hints about Wellauer’s marriages invited attention, as did his dealings with women performers.
While I have read some of the titles in this series, I had not read the first ones and decided the omission should be rectified. Brunetti emerges on the world’s stage as a complete and engaging protagonist who clearly loves his city. His sadness at the damage industrial pollution is causing to landmark architecture is palpable. His acknowledgement of his city’s faults is wryly humorous: Brunetti thinks the low burglary rate in Venice is due to the fact no one really knows how to find their way around the streets and allies. Brunetti’s incompetent and publicity-seeking boss shows there are no geographical boundaries to bad managers. Some things are the same no matter where you go.
A polished start to a consistently plotted and well-written series.
· Publisher: HarperCollins; 1st edition (July 1, 1992)
· Language: English
· ISBN-10: 0060168714
· ISBN-13: 978-0060168711
Aubrey Hamilton ©2019
Aubrey Hamilton is a former librarian who works on Federal It projects by day and reads mysteries at night.