The fact that I’ve enjoyed whatever Donna Leon title I’ve picked up probably means she was a prime contender for reread the series from the start status, but if I hadn’t chanced upon Death at La Fenice in the el cheapo bins at Townsville’s Target that prospect would probably be something for the distant future.
As it turns out, now that I’ve got, and have read, the first title, there have been orders for the next couple (currently substantially discounted to the point where there’s not that much difference between tracking them down at Fishpond and scouring the el cheapo bins for the little devils.
So, One down, Two and Three ordered, a couple more on the shelves, two already reviewed on the website, what’s the G.O. here?
Well, for a start, it has been a long time since I found a first title in a seres that’s as fully formed as Death at La Fenice. Usually you start reading a series and things gradually fall in place as the author comes to terms with the key characters and the setting, but here, most of the elements that run through the series are firmly in place.
Admittedly, some of the characters who become key players in later titles have yet to make an appearance, the key one being Signora Elettra, computer wizard and secretary of Commissario Brunetti’s boss, who wouldn’t have been able to work her magic when Death was written because 1992 (the year the book was published) was comfortably before the development of the World Wide Web she trawls so efficiently.
But, effectively, from the get go we’ve got Guido Brunetti, devoted family man whose in-laws come from one of Venice’s foremost aristocratic families. He’s not exactly thrilled about this. Despite the fact he’s been married for seventeen years he isn’t sure of how to address the father-in-law and isn’t comfortable in their presence.
His wife and children are, from the start, much the way they continue to be through twenty years and twenty-one titles.
Paola Brunetti, University lecturer in English literature, has most of the mannerisms that continue through the series in place from the start, though her reputation in the kitchen is still to come to the fore and the two teenage kids age a little over the series, but it’s not as if Brunetti’s about to become a grandfather any time soon.
Another key piece who falls into place almost fully formed is Brunetti’s superior, Vice-Questore Giuseppi Patta, the vain and almost insufferably pretentious man who’s not very bright. While he’ll suck up to the rich and influential he doesn’t seem to have bothered to dig around enough to learn Brunetti’s father-in-law has two doges on his mother’s side of the family or maybe he’s too busy associating himself with politicians and the like to be admitted to the patrician circles where the really influential Venetians are found.
In any case, news that world famous conductor Helmut Wellauer has been found dead at the end of the intermission between Acts Two and Three of Verdi’s La Traviata in La Fenice Opera House is certain to be greeted with alarm among Patta’s superiors so he’ll inevitably be throwing his weight around in the quest for a quick solution to a death that casts the city in a very bad light, isn’t he?
Brunetti, on the other hand, goes about his business systematically, using clever mental stratagems to avoid excessive angst prompted by Patta’s posturing and tackling the suspects diplomatically as he comes to realise that the key to the mystery lies somewhere in Wellauer’s personality and quite possibly in the long distant past.
From the moment the body is discovered there’s no doubt about how he died. There’s a smell of bitter almonds in the dressing room, to the extent that the doctor who’s called to the scene and Brunetti both know there was cyanide in the maestro’s coffee even though they’ve only read about that sort of thing in detective stories.
Backstage at the opera house isn’t what you might call the most security-conscious of environments (it’s supposed to be, but from remarks made by musicians, singers and stage hands during the investigation you know it isn’t) and there are a number of people nearby who could have delivered the deadly dose of caffeinated cyanide.
For a start, Wellauer was a noted homophobe, director Franco Santore is gay, and Wellauer has refused to honour an agreement to cast Santore's protege is a role that would possibly make his name.
There’s also the question of leading soprano Flavia Petrelli, whose lesbian liaison with independently wealthy American archeologist, Brett Lynch, Wellauer was reputedly threatening to expose, an act that would see the singer’s Spanish ex-husband gain custody of their two children.
There’s a much younger, suddenly wealthy widow, who would naturally attract suspicion, and allegations of pro-Nazi sympathies in Wellauer’s past, which may have something to do with things but it’s not a case where forensic evidence is going to throw any light on the matter.
The only fingerprints on Wellauer’s coffee cup are the maestro’s own, and given the number people who would have used the dressing room there’s not going to be much joy there so, in the end, the only way through to a solution is to piece things together from gossip, chance remarks and a bit of historical research.
The search for scuttlebutt takes Brunetti from the lofty heights of a party at Count and Countess Falier’s (his in-laws) palazzo through assorted dressing rooms, back stage areas, hotel rooms and apartments to the wretched circumstances of a destitute soprano living on the island of Guidecca, and along the way Brunetti uncovers lurid tales from Wellauer’s past and unearths fascinating stories about many of the suspects.
Suspicions start to become obvious from fairly early on in the piece. Wellauer’s second wife committed suicide when their daughter was twelve, and the current wife’s early teenage daughter from a previous marriage is away at boarding school, which strikes Brunetti as extremely suspicious when he notes the total absence of anything you’d associate with a teenage girl in the conductor’s Venice apartment.
After all, even if she was only on the premises intermittently, Brunetti is all too aware of the teenage female’s ability to leave things behind. He’s got one at home, hasn’t he?
While the reader is pretty sure which way things are heading, there’s a neat twist at the end that leaves Brunetti with a difficult moral issue a the end. While he knows what happened it’s not the sort of case where you’d want to be revealing too much of what went on behind the scenes of the victim’s life.
And that, I think, is what makes this first title in an extensive series so remarkable. Donna Leon has managed to deliver what was originally a one-off joke prompted by a friend’s suggestion that she try writing a crime novel and put in place elements that are good enough to keep her, and the reader, going through twenty titles without adding too much to the original mix.
Of course, when you’ve got a setting like Venice, an eye for detail, and an intimate knowledge of sensibilities in La Serenissima, you’ve probably got a walk up start, but Brunetti’s an engaging character, the interactions with his family down to the surreptitious support for an anti-capitalist son who gloats over winning at Monopoly work, and his dealings with his loathsome boss reflect a degree of pragmatism in a character who’d be, one suspects, an idealist by inclination.