Donna Leon, Death at La Fenice (1992)
My current crunch is such that I rather need occasional escape.
I had read this book before (it started dawning on me partway through), but it's the first in the Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery series by Donna Leon, and I wanted to get reacquainted with the dottore, as he's referred to, before tackling further stories. I also liked the fact that this takes place partly at the concert hall of La Fenice, which I visited last April—a good program with conductor Jeffrey Tate (Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 7 in B Minor, D 749, the "Unfinished"; and Alfredo Casella's Symphony Op. 63). But mostly, I was in the mood to go back to Venice, even if only via literature.
The story itself is fine: a world-renowned German conductor, possibly with a shady (i.e., Nazi) past, is killed during a performance of La Traviata—cyanide. Commissario Brunetti starts tracking down possible culprits—the new, younger wife; the diva soprano, or perhaps her lesbian lover; an impresario, whom the conductor promised a favor but then did not deliver on . . . Eventually he figures it out. It's a slow process (several Goodreads critics complained that it was far too slow), but I didn't mind: for me, the beauty of the book lay in the character of Brunetti, along with the police he was surrounded by (his interactions with his superior, tellingly from Sicily, are a hoot). And in La Serenissima—the city of Venice—herself. When it comes to mysteries, the plots are often of secondary concern for me. (Though they'd better end believably! This one did—believably enough, and with just the right amount of foreshadowings thrown in, one realizes in hindsight.)
There are some lovely descriptions of Venice, as seen through the eyes of a native: the utilitarian businesses that residents rely on, and how they were being pushed out by gaudy tourist shops; the nearby island of Giudecca, which "lived in strange isolation from the rest of the city"; a morning shrouded in thick fog; the cemetery island with its daily visits by women intent on beautifying graves with bundles of flowers.
And Brunetti is smart and wry, attentive and thoughtful.
In one scene, he is summoned to his supervisor, Patta's, office (a man who demands "to be addressed, at all times, as 'Vice-Questore' or the even grander 'Cavaliere,' the provenance of which title remained obscure"). Patta asks where Brunetti is in the case, then concludes: "In other words, you've learned nothing important?"
"Yes, sir, I suppose you could put it that way."Goodreads critics also complained about "stilted" language, but I liked the formality. It fit the character of a man whose family had lived in Venice for generations, and who took pride in that, no matter how down-at-heels the city had become: she was still beautiful, and uniquely so.
"You know, Brunetti, I've given a lot of thought to this investigation, and I think it might be wise to take you off the case." Patta's voice was heavy with menace, as though he'd spent the previous night paging through his copy of Macchiavelli.
"I could, I suppose, give it to someone else to investigate. Perhaps then we'd have some real progress."
"I don't think Mariani's working on anything at the moment."
It was only with the exercise of great self-restraint that Patta kept himself from wincing at the mention of the name of the younger of the two other commissarios of police, a man of unimpeachable character and impenetrable stupidity who was known to have gotten his job as part of his wife's dowry, she being the niece of the former mayor. . . . "Or perhaps you could take it over yourself," he suggested, and then added with tantalizing lateness, "sir."
"Yes, that's always a possibility," Patta said, either not registering the rudeness or deciding to ignore it. He took a package of dark-papered Russian cigarettes from his desk and fitted one into his onyx holder. Very nice, Brunetti thought; color coordinated. "I've called you in because I've had some phone calls from the press and from People in High Places," he said, carefully emphasizing all the capitals. "And they're very concerned that you've done nothing." This time, the enunciation fell very heavily upon the singular. He puffed delicately at the cigarette and stared across at Brunetti. "Did you hear me? They're not pleased."
"I can see how that would be, sir. I've got a dead genius and no one to blame for it."
Was he wrong, or did he see Patta mouth that last one silently to himself, perhaps preparing to toss it off himself at lunch today? "Yes, exactly," Patta said. His lips moved again. "And no one to blame for it." Patta deepened his voice. "I want that to change. I want someone to blame for it." Brunetti had never before heard the man so clearly express his idea of justice. Perhaps Brunetti would toss that off at lunch today.
Here is the entire list of Commissario Brunetti books, complete with Goodreads star-ratings. I'll be reading more of them, I warrant.