Completed: Death at La Fenice

Death at La Fenice
Donna Leon

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.