Death at La Fenice

The colorful setting of Donna Leon’s first novel draws on her firsthand knowledge of the culture of Venice, Italy. The mystery begins at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice, an opera house, where Helmut Wellauer is found dead during the intermission of an opera he is conducting. Commissario Guido Brunetti investigates the sensitive crime, which demands rapid resolution before it becomes a scandal for the city.

Brunetti finds himself with a difficult task, as dozens of people had access to the Wellauer’s dressing room and could have put the fatal dose of cyanide into his coffee. A few of Wellauer’s acquaintances appear likely as suspects, but none stands out. Brunetti searches Wellauer’s past for more clues, investigating his alleged Nazi past and his homophobia, which may have led to arguments with his director and with one of his sopranos. True to the mystery’s setting in Venice, Brunetti uses gossip as a primary tool to finding Wellauer’s killer. Brunetti’s concentration on gossip allows his investigation to uncover particularly lurid tales from Wellauer’s past and lets suspects’ personalities vent themselves dramatically. The investigation reveals fascinating stories about many of the characters in addition to the dead conductor.

Although it is cleverly plotted, Leon’s first novel is memorable primarily for its vivid characters and for its clever integration of Venetian society into the texture of the story. The resolution, in particular, shows sensitivity to Italian sensibilities. Brunetti himself is an engaging character, as are members of his family, which includes a wealthy and socially connected father-in-law and an anticapitalist son who gloats over winning at Monopoly.