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Donna Leon's Death at La Fenice

Would you like to go on a European vacation this summer but lack the funds? Reading one of Donna Leon’s marvellous Venetian mystery novels may not be the same as visiting Italy but will provide you with hours of enjoyable armchair travel. Leon, as Heald points out, “has done for Venice what Colin Dexter did for Oxford and Sara Paretsky for Chicago.”

Born into an Italian-American family, Leon left her native New Jersey in 1966. Before settling down in Venice, she lived in Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, England, Iran, and China. Like Amanda Cross, Donna Leon is an academic who has taught English literature at university. Leon’s other passion is opera; earlier in her career, she founded an opera company in Venice. Her doctorate was on Jane Austen and her alter ego, Paola Brunetti, is a reflection of Leon’s academic and cultural interests. Leon was a crime reviewer for the Sunday Times, and won the prestigious Silver Dagger Award for Friends in High Places. Death at La Fenice is the first Guido Brunetti mystery in a series that is still going strong and achieving best-seller status.

The novel opens at the famed Venetian opera house, Teatro La Fenice. Just as the third act of the opera, La Traviata, is about to start, there is an unexpected delay. World-renowned Maestro Helmut Wellauer is found poisoned in his dressing room. Vice-Commissario Guido Brunetti is called in to investigate. The soprano, the artistic director, and the Maestro’s wife – a woman 30 years younger than her husband – are immediate suspects. Death at La Fenice is a novel of dark secrets and hidden motives.

Leon did not set out to become a crime writer. A famous conductor, according to Heald,
suggested she try a crime novel. She wrote Death at la Fenice as a joke. When she finished the book she stashed it away and forgot about it until submitting it for the Suntory prize in Japan. Somewhat to her consternation, it won and she was offered a two-book contract by Harper Collins.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Times has included her as one of “The 50 Greatest Crime Writers,” calling Leon an “American explorer of the Venetian underworld.”

What distinguishes all her Brunetti books is her depiction of Venice. Leon told Publishers Weekly (2003, 58), “Italy is a country that exerts the power of its beauty over most people who visit it, and the Italians have a charm that is hard to resist. I like to think that some of that beauty and charm have drifted into my books and their characters.” Indeed the allure of the buildings, the waterways, the traditions, the food, and the character of the people are all irresistible. But Leon presents the seamy underside of Venice too. Corruption, as White observes, “is a leitmotif, qualifying the glowing picture she presents of Venice.”

When Brunetti, for example, views a bridge at night, he observes: “How typically Venetian it was, looking, from a distance, lofty and ethereal but revealing itself, upon closer reflection, to be firmly grounded in the mud of the city” (43). Good mysteries, maintains Professor Demko in his “Landscapes of Crime” website, “can provide the traveler with important cultural, economic, historical and geographical information that would make a regular guide book author blush in shame.” The Guido Brunetti mysteries, he writes, do just that:
The squares, districts, canals and the waterway system as well as a typical Venetian diet are regularly and brilliantly described in this truly fascinating series. Leon often provides an historical background for many of the regions of Venice, many of which are important for understanding the present.
Death at La Fenice is a character-driven novel. The eminently likable police detective, Guido Brunetti, is the prism through which readers view the city and events of the novel. The Times calls him “charismatic,” a police detective who “investigates the grimy underside and corrupt high society of Venice” (Berlins 2008). What saves him from becoming cynical is his home life. As he enters his palazzo, he is
glad of the warmth and smell he associated with the apartment: lavender, wax, the scent of something cooking in the kitchen at the back; it was a mixture that represented to him, in a way he couldn’t explain, the existence of sanity in the daily madness that was his work. (44)
“Deftly plotted and smoothly written in the Ngaio Marsh cultural mode,” Death at La Fenice, as Kirkus Reviews points out, will appeal to those who love such mysteries. And for anyone who wishes to experience Venetian life in all its richness, Death at La Fenice is a must-read novel.

Anable, Stephen. “Deaths in Venice: PW Talks with Donna Leon.” Publishers Weekly 250, no. 31 (2003): 58.

Berlins, Marcel. “The 50 Greatest Crime Writers.” The Times. April 19, 2008.

Leon, Donna. Death at La Fenice. New York: HarperTorch, 1992.