Thursday, April 23, 2015

Obsession and Death in Donna Leon’s Venice

Donna Leon’s Falling in Love: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery is the latest in a well-loved series that was launched in 1992. Reading these novels is like visiting old friends in their comfortable home and sharing excellent wine, wonderful food and good conversation into the wee hours of the night.

The crime is rarely the point. In fact, in more than one of the novels, the crime is solved but no one is ever sent to jail because of political or other
sinister connections. Although Leon explores crime and corruption and the underworld, the novels are driven by character and setting.

Guido Brunetti is a born and bred Venetian and proud of it. From humble beginnings (his mother “had never gone beyond the fourth year of middle school” and his father was “a perpetually unemployed dreamer whose health had been ruined and mind affected by years as a prisoner of war”), he has risen to a high rank in the Venetian Questura as a result of his intelligence and competence.

He is happily married to Paola, the daughter of a Venetian Conte and Contessa, who has studied at Oxford, is a Henry James specialist and university professor – and still somehow manages to produce mouth-watering lunches and dinners for Guido, herself and their two teenagers. (Descriptions of the food being served is an added pleasure and there is even a Brunetti’s Cookbook with “culinary stories” by Leon and recipes by Roberta Pianaro.)

The ensemble “cast” of the novels include Brunetti’s self-promoting and vain boss, Vice-Questore Patta; the scheming Lieutenant Scarpa; Ispettore Vienello, Brunetti’s right-hand man; and the indispensible Signorina Elettra who can find necessary information in ways Guido often doesn’t want to know.

In Falling in Love, a character from the first book in the series reappears. Celebrated soprano Flavia Petrelli is performing in Tosca at La Fenice, and accepts a dinner invitation from the Brunettis.

At dinner, Flavia confides that she is frightened by the attentions of an anonymous and apparently obsessed fan who has followed her from city to city – London, St. Petersburg, Paris and now Venice – sending hundreds of roses after every performance to her dressing room and, even more terrifying, to her apartment door. Tension grows when a young singer, whose voice has been complimented by Flavia, is pushed from a bridge with the words, “She’s mine.”

With the help of “research” obtained by Signorina Elettra, a suspect becomes the focus of the investigation. Brunetti and Vienello take up surveillance backstage at the opera house and the real-life events that unfold are just as bloody and dramatic as those depicted in the opera.

As Susanna Bauknecht wrote in Publishers Weekly (4/15):

Leon’s Venice is peopled with urbane, sophisticated characters, and she flavors the novel with insights into stagecraft, Tosca, and the storied La Fenice opera house. Series aficionados as well as those who appreciate elegant settings and cultured conversation should find this a deeply satisfying escape.

Donna Leon is an American writer who has lived in Venice for decades. The Brunetti novels have been made into a German TV 20-episode series and are available on DVD with English subtitles. In 2000, she won the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger Award.

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