Donna Leon began writing her series of Venetian police procedurals when I was in college (1992, if you’re counting) and has written one every single year since then. (Twenty-seven of them. Whew.) Death at La Fenice is the first of them, and the first one I’ve ever read, despite recommendations especially from my father, who loves this series.
Police commissioner Guido Brunetti has seen a lot of death, and so has the famous old La Fenice opera house. But when Maestro Wellauer is killed with cyanide in his coffee, both of them prove capable of being scandalized. Wellauer was a harsh, rigorous, prejudiced man who had a surprising number of enemies. Which of them actually had motive for murder? Brunetti interviews divas, lovers, wives, scholars of Chinese history, and gossips, usually over amazing Italian food and wine, as he circles closer to the truth.
This is a fairly slow-paced murder mystery with a not-exactly unpredictable ending, and the writing is workmanlike (except for the food, which is rhapsodic.) But my friend Stacey helped me see that this book is a window into the Italian way of life. Brunetti is surrounded by Byzantine bureaucracy, a vain and incompetent superior, and sergeants who are essentially thick-headed goons. He is dealing with a set of laws that are inconsistent and sometimes incomprehensible. His suspects are well aware of this, and they are carving out their own way in the world, each with their own idea of justice and fairness. How can Brunetti act within the law, as an arm of the law, and bring about justice in an unjust situation?
There are several small examples of this sprinkled through the book. One particularly endearing one is when Brunetti visits an American living in Venice. She has remodeled her 15th-century apartment to include beautiful skylights, and he asks, amazed, how she got permission from the tangled city bureaucracy. She tells him that she simply went ahead and did it and then sent to the city planners to ask how much the fine would be. Brunetti, gobsmacked, laughs to himself. A Venetian would never do such a thing.
I’ll probably read at least one more of these mysteries and see if Brunetti remains an island in a sea of incompetence or whether he gets some partners he can work with. But I did enjoy this, as a snapshot of Venice.