Fresh Meat: Falling in Love by Donna Leon

Falling in Love by Donna Leon is the 24th mystery in the Commissario Guido Brunetti series set in Venice (available April 7, 2015).

The mystery in Falling in Love, the 24th in Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series, is centered on diva soprano Flavia Petrelli, last seen in 1996’s Acqua Alta, and before that in Leon’s first Brunetti mystery, Death at La Fenice in 1992. She has returned to Venice and La Fenice to sing the lead in Tosca. As adulation pours forth from the audience at Flavia’s final bow, the “first rose, long-stemmed and yellow as the sun, fell just in front of her. Her foot pulled back from it involuntarily, as if she were afraid of doing it an injury or it her.”

Yellow roses have been raining down on Petrelli’s curtain calls since her last performance of Nozze two months earlier. But here in Venice is the first time the soprano has been showered with them in her dressing room. She then finds them at the door to her apartment and is overwhelmed by a rush of fear.

She’d known fear in the past, but there had been a logic in what she feared: she’d know what it was about. These flowers made no sense: they should have been a compliment to her talent, sent in appreciation of a good performance. Instead, she felt in them menace and something even stronger than that, something approaching madness.

Flavia’s twisted admirer has been sending flowers to her in London, St. Petersburg, Amsterdam, and now, in Venice, where the stalker’s actions have taken a terrifying turn.

Roses here, roses there, roses roses everywhere. She caught her breath at the sight of the flowers, every surface covered with vases filled with dozens of them. Motionless, she studied the sea of yellow, growing even more unease when she noticed that the vases were not the usual catch-alls that theatres kept for such occasion.

They are valuable Murano glass. Rather than being impressed at this largesse, Flavia is repelled and tells her dresser to take the flowers and the vases home.

Brunetti and his wife, Paola, attend a performance and go backstage to congratulate Flavia. Paola invites Flavia to dine at her parents’ palazzo. At dinner, Flavia admits her unease at these excessive displays of adulation, but she refuses Brunetti’s offer of help, for now.

On their way home from dinner via the Rialto Bridge, Brunetti and Paola

…said little as they walked along the water. Just before they turned right under the passageway, both of them turned back and saw the moon’s reflection looking as though it were just about to slide under the bridge. “We live in Paradise, don’t we?” Paola asked.

However, this is no prelapsarian paradise; evil has already entered. Almost immediately following Paola’s comment Brunetti learns that a young opera singer is in the hospital with a broken arm and six stiches in her scalp. This was no accident; she was pushed down the step on Ponte de le Scuole.

Flavia has met the victim; on hearing the young woman sing she stopped briefly in her practice room to wish her good luck. It is a meeting of no more than a few minutes, but enough of a connection that the jealous stalker has upped the game to violence.

Flavia Petrelli’s wealthy stalker, in addition to the roses and other gifts, gives to Flavia a necklace worth a half a million euros. This gesture gets serious attention from Brunetti, and he interrogates Flavia in an effort to learn something more about the person. Flavia identifies one possibility, a woman she now says was crazy. Brunetti wants to know what made her think so:

“Nothing. Nothing at all. She was very formal and polite, but underneath it there was this awful longing.” She saw his failure to understand and went on. “You get to recognize it. They want something: friendship or love or acknowledgement or . . . something I don’t know.” She raised a head towards him. “It’s terrible. All this wanting, and you don’t want to give them anything, don’t even know what they want. They probably don’t, either. I hate it.”

Brunetti is confused at Flavia’s trouble in describing the woman:

“How could she cause this strong a reaction in you, yet you don’t remember what she looks like?”

Flavia shook her head repeatedly. “You don’t know what it’s like, Guido. To have all those people crowding round, all of them wanting something, to tell you something about themselves. They think they want to tell you how much they liked your performance, but what they really want is to make you remember them. Or like them.”

The novel, which opens and closes at the Teatro La Fenice, engenders a feeling of claustrophobia as readers are forced to spend rather too much time in the mind of the not very likable Flavia. Falling in Love spends less time on the grandeur of Venice, its beauty, and magnificence, and unlike other books in the excellent series, makes Commissario Guido Brunetti into the bit player.

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Susan Amper, author of How to Write About Edgar Allan Poe, still mourns the loss of her Nancy Drew collection.

Read all posts by Susan Amper on Criminal Element.

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