Uncommon Mystery - Death at La Fenice

Mar 5, 2009

Murray, KY – Teatro La Fenice in Venice is one of the most famous opera houses in Europe and is the setting for the Donna Leon's internationally best-selling "Brunetti" mystery novel series. Commentator Michael Cohen peaks through the pages of this Venetian who-done-it in his latest Uncommon Mystery.

Before we're even a quarter of the way through the book, Leon has woven a blanket of suspicion large enough to cover most of the people we've met and some we haven't yet. The soprano and her lesbian lover have lied about their last contact with the maestro, whose homophobia may also implicate the director and his lover as well. The dead man's second wife was a suicide, and the children of that marriage are now grown. The present wife, much younger than the conductor, is a natural suspect, and several burglaries at one of the maestro's apartments, resulting in large insurance settlements, hint that a lot of inheritance money is at stake. By the time he has learned this much, Brunetti isn't even halfway through the first full day of the case.

Brunetti concentrates on the personality of the dead man: "the answer always lay there," he thinks. He mistrusts intuition and hunches about a suspect. Unlike so many detective characters, Brunetti's home life is happy and provides a center for him. He struggles with an arrogant superior and some incompetent subordinates, but on the whole moves fairly smoothly through his world, where he can shift easily from the Venice dialect called Veneziano to a more widely-used standard Italian and even to competent English.

Donna Leon is a transplant to Venice she's a New Yorker who taught in various schools abroad before settling in Venice twenty years ago. The mystery story is used to this sort of cultural appropriation: the first detective stories, about a French detective in Paris, were written by an American who had never been there. Since Poe, we've had white Australians writing about aborigine detectives, Anglos writing about southwestern American Indian detectives, Belgians writing about French detectives, Englishwomen writing about Belgian detectives, and so on and so on.

Leon does very well at lightly sketching the beauty and interest of Venice, especially its foggy mysteriousness in November, when the story takes place. And she deals well with Italian daily life, the Italians' love of titles (Brunetti's father-in-law is a count), the swarm of daily newspapers representing each demographic group and every shade of political opinion, the corruption that pervades Italy's bureaucracy, and the way the pace of Italian life is measured by meals in restaurants and homes, coffee breaks in cafes, and drinks taken at various hours at parties, bars, apartments, and even the dressing rooms at the opera house, Teatro La Fenice. Brunetti is a likable character in a picturesque setting; if you like him, there are a dozen more books in the series.