Death at La Fenice, by Donna Leon

This is the first book in Leon's series set in Venice featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. A world-famous conductor is found dead in his dressing room at the end of the second interval, apparently poisoned, and Brunetti catches the case. There's a lot of wry humor in Brunetti's attempts to keep the political constraints from interfering with his investigation.

The first Donna Leon book I read (several years ago now) disappointed me. I think this was because I had hoped to feast on the enchantment of the setting in Venice, but instead found a police procedural with little enchantment but much insight into the human spirit, as well as into corruption in the government and within the police force.

My friend, Warren, encouraged me not to give up on Leon’s books. I read more books in the series and acknowledged that they gave me a better understanding of the Venice behind the touristy postcards. Then I remembered a talk I once heard by mystery writer Nevada Barr about how she prepared to write her first mystery. She took a handful of mysteries that she admired and took them apart, looking at structure, pacing, and suspense. Her efforts paid off: her first book blew me away, winning all kinds of awards, and subsequent books have been equally good.

I had not previously thought much about basic patterns of mysteries. I knew that there were a number of categories—cosies, police procedurals, hard-boiled, etc.—the definitions of which vary somewhat from one source to another. Here, though, I'm talking about the patterns inherent in the book, their structure. Basically, most of the modern-day mysteries that I enjoy have certain common characteristics:

a. an accelerating suspense that culminates in a life-threatening crisis: Nevada Barr and William Kent Krueger handle this especially well.
b. a detective who grows and changes in each book: Rebus in Ian Rankin's books is an excellent example.
c. a place that is almost another character in the books: Look at Baltimore in Laura Lippman's books or Boston in Robert B. Parker's.
d. a puzzle that challenges my intellect: P.D. James is the best.
e. psychological insight: Peter Robinson's insight into his characters enables him to make even the most damaged people seem real, not inexplicable monsters.

There are some older mysteries that I've enjoyed tremendously that don't fit this pattern or have only one or two of the characteristics. For example, John Franklin Bardin’s three novels of psychological suspense (The Deadly Percheron, The Last of Philip Banter, and Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly) may not have all of the characteristics listed above, but they plunge the reader into a fascinating, dark maelstrom of shifting realities, questionable identities, and murder. Also, Wilkie Collins, whom I blogged about in June, 2007, is a master of suspense without needing a shoot-out or car chase for a climax.

Once I thought about all this, I realised that my disappointment with the Donna Leon book was caused by the lack of driving suspense. There is suspense but it is quieter, trying to work out who did what and why, wondering if Commissario Brunetti will be able to negotiate the labyrinthine politics of the Venetian police force. Leon's books are a gradual unfolding of plot and motive. Here it's the puzzle that keeps me reading, not the adrenaline rush of a car chase or some looming danger that threatens either the detective or other characters.

Not only do I find Leon's puzzles intriguing, but the description of the bureaucratic forces Brunetti faces make me shake my head in rueful recognition. Other things that I like about Leon's series is the way she brings even the most minor characters to life. Every character in these books—victims, suspects, police officers, families—has a depth and complexity that make the story compelling. I also like the way she placed Brunetti’s decisions within a larger context of ethical and societal concerns. I’m very glad Warren encouraged me to continue with this series and recommend it to readers who are willing to try something different.

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