Death at La Fenice (Commissario Brunetti #1) by Donna Leon

The story opens at the beginning of the third act of La Traviata at the famous Fenice opera in Venice. The conductor, a man named Wellauer, has been found dead of cyanide poisoning in his dressing room. There are plenty of what we’ll call The Usual Suspects (I watched Casablanca last night) – a much younger wife, a passionate soprano, a betrayed performer, and plenty of journalists and musicians who know way too many of the conductor’s dirty secrets. Enter police commissioner Brunetti, who has to figure out which of these people had the best reason to want the conductor dead.

To do this, he has to dig into Wellauer’s past and try to figure out what kind of man he was. This takes many chapters, and lots of interviews over the phone and in restaurants with a variety of people who worked with the conductor over the years. The pace moves slowly, and there are very few major plot-twisting revelations until the very end, where everything suddenly speeds up and I kept expecting Brunetti to put on his sunglasses and tell someone that This Shit Just Got Real.

The story is good, the writing is good, the setting is fantastic, and the mystery is fascinating – it’s because of the pace that this book gets four stars instead of five. Maybe it’s because I’m used to Agatha Christie, where we get a new startling revelation or clue every couple of chapters, but for some reason this story just dragged a little too much for my taste. For instance, in a scene that’s depressingly reminiscent of the infamous Vampire Baseball Scene in Twilight, an entire chapter of Death at La Fenice is devoted to Brunetti playing Monopoly with his family. Sweet, but I wanted the story to focus on, ya know, the murder.

Verdict: four out of five stars

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