Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon: A review

In 1992, Donna Leon's first mystery featuring Commissario of Police Guido Brunetti was published. Since then, she has written twenty-six more, the twenty-seventh one due for publication in March. That is remarkable prolificacy of more than one book a year. If they all provide as pleasurable a read as the first one, Death at La Fenice, I can certainly understand the popularity of the series. 

This was recommended to me because I enjoy reading mystery series and several of the series that I have been following for years are ending, or else I am overtaking the writers and waiting impatiently for them to produce their next book. So I have vacancies in my reading schedule that need filling. Enter Guido Brunetti/Donna Leon.

All of these mysteries are set in Venice where the author, born in America, has lived for many years. The city itself is a major character, or at least it was in this first book. Some of the best parts of the book are the writer's descriptions of the city, its atmosphere, and its effect on people. I've noticed this is true of most of the novels that I've read that are set in Italy. Elena Ferrante's Naples springs readily to mind. Not that I'm really comparing Ferrante and Leon, two very different writers, except insofar as the sense of place in their novels is such a strong factor in their stories.

Leon's protagonist, Guido Brunetti, is a particularly attractive and likable character. He is happily married to a woman who comes from an old (and rich) Venetian family. They have two children, a teenage son and a younger daughter. Brunetti goes about his work in a very low-key, methodical manner, and the story is told through his viewpoint so we learn information and sift through clues along with him. After his work day, Brunetti goes home to his wife and family and plays Monopoly with them.

In Death at La Fenice, Brunetti is called to the famous opera house where a legendary conductor has been found dead in his dressing room after the second intermission in La Traviata, the opera that he had been conducting. It is apparent that the man had been poisoned by potassium cyanide that was in a cup of coffee that he drank. 

The show must go on, so the back-up conductor carries on with the program while Brunetti and his team get on with the investigation.

The investigation quickly reveals that, even though the dead conductor had been a talented musician of peerless reputation, as a human being he had been a particularly nasty piece of work. The deeper that Brunetti gets into his investigation, the nastier the news of the victim gets.

There is no shortage of candidates who would potentially have wanted to kill the man, from his much younger third wife to old acquaintances from his years as a supporter of the Nazis during World War II. Brunetti has his work cut out for him in trying to puzzle out just what happened and we get to follow along and listen to his thought processes.

This really was an entirely enjoyable read. Not only do the characters seem real, the plot is tight and fast-moving, and the writer displays a felicitous use of language. At one point, she refers to the "fury of frightened people," a phrase which found me nodding my head in recognition. And again, in describing a piece of music she says it is an example of the "repetitive nature of Vivaldi." Now, I do love me some Vivaldi but that phrase is just the perfect description of his music!   

I'm already looking forward to my next visit with Guido Brunetti. 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  



  1. This one sounds very entertaining. I'm glad that you encountered yet another interesting detective to keep you busy. ;-)

    1. It was really enjoyable and I look forward to getting to know Guido Brunetti better!

  2. Yay, you found a new series to love! Good to know, though I am in the middle of so many and wonder if I will ever get through any of them. I love following your reviews though, of series I might get to someday.


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