Monday, July 11, 2011
Monday Review: DEATH AT LA FENICE (1992) by Donna Leon
This is not my first Donna Leon book featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti of the Polizia Venezia, nor will it be the last. My first was ACQUA ALTA given to me by a friend a while back. Since then I've been promising myself a summer of the Italian book and a trip to Venice - figuratively speaking, of course. Well, I've now finished the first book in the series and all I can say is: WHAT TOOK ME SO LONG??
DEATH AT LA FENICE has the sort of beginning I love best in a mystery. There is no long-winded set-up (like the kind you usually find here), the mystery begins immediately and it features death inside a real place - La Fenice, Venice's 'jewel box' of an Opera House. So, we're on the scene and ready to go within a few paragraphs.
Helmut Wellauer is a world famous conductor who, as the book opens, is already dead and done for. Found in his dressing room after the second act of Verdi's La Traviata - the smell of bitter almonds pungent in the air. A shocking, sensational scandal that calls for the subliminal guiding hand and wily genius of Guido Brunetti, Commissario of Police.
Married for many years to his beloved Paola, a professor at university, Brunetti, the bemused father of two, is well established with a convincing back-story revealed in brief glimpses of family life as the book moves along. Of course it's the locale, Venice, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, which is the real star of the show, but the other main characters hold their own in Donna Leon's more than capable hands.
Almost at once, Brunetti realizes that the key to the Wellauer affair lies in the personality of the enigmatic genius who was Helmut Wellauer, world renowned conductor of opera. This sort of crime takes time to unravel. But Brunetti's inane boss wants quick action. They want someone, anyone, incarcerated - immediately if not sooner. The government, the newspapers, the city itself, Venice demands it!
But Brunett goes his own way. He is convinced that exploring the dead man's past is the key to the present mystery. With the skill of a tactician Brunetti manages his boss (all the while holding him in contempt), manages the case and eventually arrives at an outcome both sad, shocking and deserving of his greatest tactical wisdom.
I love a story where things about a famous victim are discovered in drips and drabs as suspects are interviewed, clues and suggestions dropped and surprises sprung. If done well, this is one of the most effective means of developing a good mystery. Agatha Christie always said (occasionally through the mouth of her ace detective, Hercule Poirot) that the solution to a murder usually lies in the personality of the victim. I say: it makes for very effective story-telling.
There aren't many names in the suspect pool since it almost immediately becomes clear to Brunetti that very few had real access to the conductor's backstage dressing room: the much younger wife, in the audience that evening, the star soprano and her close friend who are very obviously holding something back, the gay director who'd not been on good terms with Wellauer since the German conductor was a known homophobe and rumored to have had Nazi leanings during the war and, of course, assorted cast members and stagehands. But who among them had a strong enough motive for wishing the conductor dead? Brunetti deduces that ugly, long-buried secrets are at the root of it all.
The Commissario even goes so far as to get himself invited to the palazzo home of his in-laws, the wealthy Count and Countess Falier - people whom he prefers to avoid when possible. (He knows it's a kind of failing in him, but try as he might he can't ever seem to enjoy being in the company of the Count and Countess, though his children (to his amazement) and his wife, of course, feel very differently.) If anyone knows any juicy details about the world-renown conductor, it is the sorts of people who often show up at the palazzo of the Count and Countess Falier.
The musings on the Count and Countess are some of the more humorous aspects of the book. The funny this is: they do not make Brunetti especially likable, but because of this particular foible, they make him more human.
Brunetti is a lone hand, a pragmatic man who sees himself as a bulwark against the forces of evil. In my mind, it is this pragmatism that keeps him from being the idealist which would have been his preferred, natural choice. But I may be wrong. I've only read two of the books so far.
Eventually, with the unwilling help of a wretched and destitute soprano now living under the most appalling conditions, the Commissarrio learns of the depravity which held sway over Wellauer's life. A terrible secret which leads to a truly horrible past-due retribution for a man of music and eventually to his death in that dressing room in the middle of a Verdi opera.
DEATH AT LA FENICE is a terrific beginning to what I hope will continue to be one of my favorite series. Two books in, two great reading experiences.