Mystery · RAL

Completed: Death at La Fenice


Death at La Fenice
Donna Leon
1992

Venezia. Serenissima. City of Masks. Queen of the Adriatic. City of Water. So many names for such a small place, the splendor of its heyday now faded, battered by l’acqua alta, inundated by tourists—of which I once formed a guilty part—but its beauty still alive.


During my semester in Italy a friend and I spent two days in this tiny town, exploring the nooks and crannies—and as every “good tourist” must, visiting every museum and Piazza San Marco, of course.  However, unlike many good tourists, much of our time was spent without a map, the best way (short of living there) to discover any city and to stumble upon the unexpected. It is a city without motorized transport, save that which is in the water, where children may play in the streets without fear of a speeding driver, a city with many bridges, many canals, a city with a certain faded grandeur, its glory long past. In short, it seems the perfect setting for all sort of fantasy or intrigue.

As if in the grip of a demon, or a deity, Wellauer’s body had swept back and forth above the podium, left hand clenched half open, as if he wanted to rip the sound from the violins. In his right hand, the baton was a weapon, flashing now here, now there, a thunderbolt that summoned up waves of sound. But now, in death, all sign of the deity had fled, and there remained only the leering demon’s mask.

In a city known for its musical heritage—home of such composers as Antonio Vivaldi and Claudio Monteverdi and of the Teatro La Fenice opera house—it seems appropriate to set the mystery inside the musical world. In Donna Leon’s first Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery, Death at La Fenice, the victim is a world-famous conductor; the setting for the crime is within the backrooms of the famous opera house. As a mystery, Death at La Fenice  is solid, enjoyable, full of intriguing characters. I found the solution satisfying without being overly convoluted or predictable, and Brunetti is a detective I can root for, without any dark secrets or bad habits that almost seem requisite for literary crime solvers.

But I did not read Death at La Fenice because it is a mystery (although I was seeking a mystery), I read it because it is Venetian. Leon, although American, has lived in Venice for many years, and the feel of the novel is one I recognize from my time spent in Italy. It is the little details that I recognize: the locales, the daily activities, the worries over choosing tu or lei when addressing a new acquaintance. My only complaint is that perhaps she carries this too far, “telling” too much rather than letting us experience. For example, referring to a wall of books: “He easily recognized the Italian ones by the way their titles ran from bottom to top, the English by their titles running top to bottom.” I don’t know if I’m bothered because I already knew that Italian titles are different than English titles and so it feels redundant or if this is indeed an example of over-describing. On the other hand, I loved all the passing references to little details that set the scene, the casual use of words or phrases that don’t have an easy English translation (antipatico the prime example). This is a series I shall return to, for the nostalgia for my time spent in Italy, if nothing else.

As my first selection for R.I.P, Death at La Fenice does falter, not for any inherent fault in the story itself, but for a lack of a suitably spooky, melancholy, or dark atmosphere appropriate to the season. However, as a story evoking the flavor of Italy, of Venetian life, it is exactly what I had hoped for.

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13 thoughts on “Completed: Death at La Fenice

  1. That sounds great. I ‘ve been wondering about Leon for awhile as I often see her mysteries at the bookstore. I’ll be adding this to my list.

    I can’t recall if you commented or not but I recently read the 4th Aurelio Zen mystery and it is set in Venice. I liked the Venetian elements every bit as much as they mystery itself. The city really is a big emphasis in the story.

    1. I really enjoyed it, and I think if you liked the Zen BBC/PBS series, you will probably enjoy this too. The detectives are different characters (of course), but I found that both had those touches of Italy that really added to the story.

      I did comment on your Zen post and will definitely be adding that to my list. I seemingly have no willpower when it comes to books set in Venice and when you add in mystery, all the better!

      1. I thought you had but couldn’t remember. Of course I could have just went and looked, LOL!

        I’ll definitely be giving this a try. I immediately went and put it on my list after reading your review.

  2. I read this about a year ago and have since made my way through several more of Leon’s mysteries. I love Brunetti and his family as well as the setting.

  3. I’ve been seeing this book at the stores a lot lately along with those Aurelio Zen titles Carl V. and you discuss above, Amanda, so it’s nice to hear that this delivers on the Italian nostalgia front for you. Also, I liked how you integrated your own experience of Venice into your post. Brava!

    1. Richard, anyone that knows me in real life tired of hearing me talk about Italy long ago, so it’s great fun to bore new victims share my stories here. Both this and the Aurerlio Zen BBC/PBS series (filmed in Rome!) have brought a lot of the Italy nostalgia back, so they’ve been great fun.

  4. I’ve been wanting to read this author! Love Italy! Love the macabre…I don’t like it when an author tells me too much, either. Perhaps our background knowledge of Italy inhibits us? I’ll have to see when I read it for myself. A Venetian reading challenge is coming in February. I’ll be sure to post when it’s ready as I’d love to have you join.

    1. Yes, I love Italy, too! I don’t know if Leon really was telling too much or if it was just that background knowledge. It’s hard for me to step back and say. I do like little details that set a scene–often it’s the smallest details, not the grand descriptions that make me feel as if I’m really there–but not when it becomes about banging us over the head to remind us, “You’re in Italy, you’re in Italy, you’re in Italy.” I’m just not sure in this case if that’s what happened.

      I remember you teasing a Venetian challenge a while back, and I am definitely planning on joining in! Can’t wait.

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