Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Death At La Fenice

Death At La Fenice
Author: Donna Leon
HarperCollins, 1992
270 pages

With the reading of this book (and posting of this blog entry), I've now surpassed my previous record of 8 books in a single month. Nine books for June. Woo-hoo!

I've had my eye on author Donna Leon for a long time. When I was living in Europe, I saw her books prominently displayed in bookstores, and I was always impressed with their pretty covers featuring the lovely historic city of Venice, Italy. I assumed that Leon was a European author. Turns out she's an American who has lived much of her life overseas. That gives her significant street cred which is proven in her exquisite descriptions of Venetian history and daily modern life. 

Death At La Fenice is the first of many books featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, a police commissioner and native Venetian. Whenever possible, I prefer to start any series at the very beginning, so although it may not be necessary in this series, it's what I decided to do. The book opens as the intermission during a performance of Traviata is coming to a close. (Teatro La Fenice is the name of the opera house in Venice.) German conductor Helmut Wellauer, an iconic figure in the music world, is dead of cyanide poisoning. Commissario Brunetti leads the investigation, sorting through clues and talking to numerous potential suspects, including the conductor's much younger Hungarian wife (his third wife, actually), an Italian opera diva, various musicians and music critics, and a Belgian housemaid.

Brunetti is a family man (the scenes with his wife Paola and their children are priceless) and also a Renaissance Man of sorts. He realizes that in order to understand what really happened to Wellauer, one must understand the person that was Wellauer.. There are rumors that the man was a Nazi back during the day. Few would argue that Wellauer had the power to make or break careers -- and some of the careers he broke have some sad stories attached. He was also a moral snob who threatened to expose homosexual liaisons of fellow musicians. There's no shortage of motives or suspects. I thought I had it figured out by page 202 . . . BUT NO. I was so wrong!

I enjoyed Death At La Fenice very much. In fact, I told "S" that it made me want to go back to Venice (which is kind of funny, because I didn't really like Venice when I was there. But maybe now I could see it with different eyes . . . and appreciate it properly this time.)

One final note: Since Death At La Fenice is approximately 18 years old and often references even earlier times, readers will need to keep in mind the differences between the current European Union and the days before the Berlin Wall came down. For example, nowadays you don't need a passport to travel from Italy to Spain and vice versa. Also, it might not seem like a big deal for a woman from Hungary to marry a man from Germany, but it would have been rather challenging in the days of the "Iron Curtain." Not that I'm an expert or anything. I'm just sayin'. :-)