Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon


World-famous conductor, Wellauer, is leading the orchestra for a production of La Traviata at La Fenice, Venice’s opera house. The first two acts seem to go well, and the audience returns from the intermission anticipating the denouement and climactic third act…but the curtain does not rise. After several moments delay, the house artistic director steps around the curtain to ask if there is a doctor in the house. It is now revealed that the conductor has been found dead, after a sudden catastrophe involving cyanide; needless to say the police are called backstage, and Guido Brunetti’s involvement begins.

As Brunetti investigates the death, he gets sucked deeper into the tumultuous world of music, opera and stage performance; we find that the performers’ lives off-stage are often as convoluted, entangled and emotionally fraught as their characters’ are on-stage. Wellauer’s wife is the last to see him alive, and she was his physician; this combined with her status as spouse makes her one of the first candidates most police forces would consider. Not surprisingly, she is one of the first and most intensively interviewed possibilities. There are, however, other possibilities. Quite a lot of them.

Wellauer, in his mid-seventies, has had a lifetime to become embroiled in this world; his connections with the Nazis and his passionate dislike of homosexuals—to the point of ruining a couple of performers’ careers—makes him a not entirely likeable character, and Brunetti has rather to rule out possible perpetrators than search them out. Ultimately, however, it proves to be a third unpleasant trait that is connected with his demise, though indirectly: his attraction to, er, very young girls1. The conclusion is an interesting twist on the usual “murder staged to resemble a suicide”; in this case, its a suicide2 staged to resemble a murder, in order to implicate someone who’d rendered Wellauer’s life untenable by removing his ability to serve as conductor.

Death at La Fenice is a blend of the cozy, with descriptions of Brunetti’s family and home life, and the police procedural, because, well, it describes the process by which police investigate a suspicious death. At least in mystery novels, there’s a certain similarity between police work in different countries: try to ascertain cause of death (in this case, time of death fell somewhere in the length of an opera intermission, no more than half an hour), find out who might have seen the victim, who had motive, and so on.

In the case of this first book and the rest of the series, the city in which the books are set is itself one of the characters in a way: Venice. While police investigations have common techniques and stages around the world, the necessity of moving about a city which has few roads and much corruption held my interest for two books. While the author is herself an American, she clearly loves Italy and Venice while recognizing the city and country’s drawbacks. Plus I appreciate a writer who sets a mystery in the world of opera and manages to make the performances appealing without sugarcoating the world.

1hopefully, not giving too much away; I know it’s a triggering subject for a lot of people
2I doubt this is giving anything away: I’m usually awful at guessing whodunit in even the stupidest of plots, and even I was wondering “Did he commit suicide?” by about halfway through the book

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