Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon

Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon

Date Published: July 27, 2004
ISBN: 978-0060740689
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Pages: 288
Genre: Mystery; Suspense Fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5

Book Summary:  There is little violent crime in Venice, a serenely beautiful floating city of mystery and magic, history and decay. But the evil that does occasionally rear its head 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 an 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 choices down to one.

My Thoughts:  This is the first book in Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti Mystery Series. Guido Brunetti is assigned to investigate the case of the murdered Conductor Helmut Wellauer, considered one of the best conductors the world over. Music is extremely important to Venetians, one of the many characteristics we learn about the people of Venice in this story so the conductor’s death is front-page news. As he begins investigating this high-profile case, Brunetti discovers that Wellauer, although admired for his musical ability, was not a popular man. This makes the list of possible suspects much longer. Brunetti begins his investigation interviewing the people closest to Wellauer, such as his widow, but soon discovers that Wellauer’s distant past and his action during the late 1930s and early 1940s may hold the answers to his murder.

This isn’t a fast-moving, highly suspenseful book but a thorough and intriguing detective investigation. Each interview and bit of information adds to the picture of the deceased victim and tells Brunetti a little more of what he needs to know. Brunetti is an interesting and flawed man. He is intelligent and thoughtful, a little arrogant and, in his personal life, he can be close-minded. His wife, Paola’s parents are wealthy nobles. Brunetti isn’t impressed by his father-in-laws lifestyle, rarely speaks to him and refuses to attend most of his in-laws many parties. But he makes a concession and decides to attend one of their lavish parties, believing he will learn valuable information about the deceased conductor and we are treated to one of the best and most witty scenes in the book.

Commissario Guido Brunetti is a hard-working, conscientious man with a good balance to his life despite the pressures to solve this case. He’s not a fan of his boss and seems to relish the opportunity to antagonize the man, making funny comments about him under his breath. In contrast to how American detectives are often portrayed, Brunetti doesn’t work round- the-clock hours, but rather, is home most nights for dinner and gets a good nights sleep. As a result, we learn about Brunetti’s private and family life, getting a more well-rounded view of this man. I always enjoy it when a mystery includes some humor and Brunetti’s interactions with Paola are often witty. Paola is a literature professor but has an affinity for the gossip ’rags’ which puzzles and irritates Brunetti. His feelings tend to be reflected in his internal dialogue which also provides some witty comments about his children. Another terrific scene in the book, which also sheds more light on Brunetti’s personality and that of his family, occurs when Brunetti and his family play Monopoly after dinner one night.

Venice is depicted vividly in this book and, at some points in the narrative, I could picture myself in the city. Brunetti loves the Venice and describes what he sees as he travels around Venice to interview the people who knew Wellauer. Venice comes alive in Leon’s beautifully detailed descriptions of the architecture, the streets, the establishments and the flowers. The interiors and furnishings of the different residences Brunetti visits are also described in detail further adding to our vision of Venice. The people of Venice, their culture and politics are also vividly described providing a complete picture of Venice, almost as if she was a character.

There are twists and turns in the criminal investigation, some I was able to figure out while others I had to wait to be revealed. And I never managed to determine who was guilty of the murder. It was a surprise and made for a riveting ending to this intriguing case. Leon’s series debut was a captivating and entertaining book. I’m interested in learning more about Commissario Brunetti in her other books in this series. I highly recommend Death at La Fenice to anyone who enjoys a great mystery!

I read this as part of the Venice in February Reading Challenge


  1. Sounds like a winner! I love it when a mystery surprises me.

  2. Your review made me think this might be like an Agatha Christie novel.

  3. I don't always have to have a swift and eye-popping plot in my mystery novels, so this one sounds like it might be right up my alley. I loved hearing what you had to say about it, and need to check it out for myself when I can. Great review today!

  4. I was hoping to read this for Venice in February, but simply ran out of time. Your review makes me think it's a book I will enjoy... maybe I should start a list for next year?

  5. "This isn’t a fast-moving, highly suspenseful book but a thorough and intriguing detective investigation."

    You sold me with that sentence! I'll keep this one in mind.

  6. Oooh, I'm not always into investigation novels but I do like ones with great atmosphere and this sounds like it could fit the bill -- thanks for this review as you've added to my TBR! :)

  7. I have heard such good things about this series that I bought a copy of this one..in fact, I accidentally bought two...and read neither yet.