Donna Leon – Death at La Fenice

Arrow Books, Penguin Random House, UK, 1992

This is the first of 29 (yes! 29 as of 2020) Commissario Guido Brunetti crime novels. It is also my introduction to this wonderful police commissioner and to Leon’s series. How could I have not read one or 28 before now? The error is soon to be rectified. I now want to read them all.

An accepted wisdom of crime writing is that people like a series and a hero/heroine with whom they can in some way identify, ie one with some human flaws along with his or her sleuthing brilliance and bravado. The Brunetti series fulfills both requirements. We are treated to more than a glimpse of Brunetti’s personal and domestic life and this humanises him, as does his propensity to be influenced by his feelings, despite trying not to be so.

In this story, Brunetti is called in to investigate the sudden death by poison of a famous German conductor, Herr Wellauer. A plethora of suspects and victim contacts provides us with the opportunity to investigate alongside Brunetti – the usual theatre cast of orchestra, singers and managers. But this victim comes with a long and not entirely transparent history, and so the possibilities expand. Too much plot detail here will spoil the denouement and so I will refrain.

Suffice it to say that it is extraordinary to me that a book published in 1992 tackles dark subjects and themes which remain starkly 2020. Is it that we always have these with us, or is Leon a particularly prescient writer.

Amidst a tale that whips along at an agreeable pace, laced with the gentle, wry humour of the best crime writers (in my view), we are treated to not only descriptions of Venice in all its grime and glory but also to the changing social fabric of Venetian society under the impact of tourism and commerce – again, something that continues to be an issue today. 

The only minorly irritating thing I find is Leon’s repeated insistence on instructing us in the use of the formal and informal pronouns of address. I am not sure if this is to demonstrate her facility for the Italian language or for the benefit of an American reading audience where perhaps the learning of European languages is less common than in Australia or Europe (at least the Australia of my generation). However, this is a minor quibble in a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. Bring on the other 28 I say.