Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon

Death at La Fenice (Commissario Guido Brunetti #1)
by Donna Leon
Grove Press, 1992
288 pages

Donna Leon is one of those authors that keeps cropping up in my life. Mostly due to Shelagh Rogers, who is a big fan. I kept hearing about the setting and the food. An interesting, unusual (to me) setting is something I quite like in a murder mystery, I am beginning to recognize. And I love books that use food wisely. This book didn't disappoint. The setting is delightful (though I have very romantic and vague notions of Venice, of course, and I must admit I still do.) The mystery very well-crafted, one of the more carefully crafted and methodical mystery plots I've encountered lately. The detective is solid and good, and also interesting enough to carry the story.

Summary: the book begins with an opera, La Traviata, opening at Venice's famed La Fenice. Or rather, it begins with the third act of the opera stalling -- rather than the actors and the maestro, as expected, the theatre's manager comes on stage to ask for a doctor. It turns out that the maestro, a German musical genius and extremely famous man, has taken ill. Actually, it turns out that he's quite dead, of cyanide poisoning. Enter Commissario Guido Brunetti, to attempt to unravel the mysteries of the performing arts world and the murky history of Maestro Wellauer.

First of all, I think this is a really excellent police procedural. Brunetti has to put in the time to solve the mystery, and though I suspected the solution I certainly didn't suspect the why. We follow Brunetti through the city, through his days, through the late nights (and the not-so-late nights -- the man has a family, and he spends time with them, wonder of wonders.) We follow him through the tedium of dealing with a foppish, useless supervisor, and through the careful piecework of interviewing and research. There is not a lot of action, but the book never feels slow. There may or may not be a few little leaps of logic that I didn't follow (not sure sometimes why Brunetti spent his time where he did, and a little suspicious that it was too convenient that he did happen to spend his time there) but overall I decided to take that as a detective's hunch rather than a plot device.

I enjoyed that the characters feel like they have lots of room to grow without feeling like they are just cutouts or placeholders. Mostly. There are a few who appear as though they were just introduced so that we know they exist for later books. Even in this, the first of a long series, Brunetti has a very distinct personality and some quirks that sometimes we are told about, but that sometimes we see.

I didn't love the twist at the end that led Brunetti to solve the mystery, not because it was out of place or poorly done, but because it was super disturbing and I unfortunately am blessed and cursed with a very good imagination. Hard to talk about this without spoilers, but let's just say I appreciated Brunetti's solution to the quandary he was in.

Glad to find the read as solid as I expected, given the love shown Leon by various people whose opinions I respect. Looking forward to the next; I have a feeling they get even better.

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