Backstage at the opera house isn’t what you might call the most security-conscious of environments (it’s supposed to be, but from remarks made by musicians, singers and stage hands during the investigation you know it isn’t) and there are a number of people nearby who could have delivered the deadly dose of caffeinated cyanide.

For a start, Wellauer was a noted homophobe, director Franco Santore is gay, and Wellauer has refused to honour an agreement to cast Santore's protege is a role that would possibly make his name. 

There’s also the question of leading soprano Flavia Petrelli, whose lesbian liaison with independently wealthy American archeologist, Brett Lynch, Wellauer was reputedly threatening to expose, an act that would see the singer’s Spanish ex-husband gain custody of their two children.

There’s a much younger, suddenly wealthy widow, who would naturally attract suspicion, and allegations of pro-Nazi sympathies in Wellauer’s past, which may have something to do with things but it’s not a case where forensic evidence is going to throw any light on the matter. 

The only fingerprints on Wellauer’s coffee cup are the maestro’s own, and given the number people who would have used the dressing room there’s not going to be much joy there so, in the end, the only way through to a solution is to piece things together from gossip, chance remarks and a bit of historical research.

The search for scuttlebutt takes Brunetti from the lofty heights of a party at Count and Countess Falier’s (his in-laws) palazzo through assorted dressing rooms, back stage areas, hotel rooms and apartments to the wretched circumstances of a destitute soprano living on the island of Guidecca, and along the way Brunetti uncovers lurid tales from Wellauer’s past and unearths fascinating stories about many of the suspects.

Suspicions start to become obvious from fairly early on in the piece. Wellauer’s second wife committed suicide when their daughter was twelve, and the current wife’s early teenage daughter from a previous marriage is away at boarding school, which strikes Brunetti as extremely suspicious when he notes the total absence of anything you’d associate with a teenage girl in the conductor’s Venice apartment.

After all, even if she was only on the premises intermittently, Brunetti is all too aware of the teenage female’s ability to leave things behind. He’s got one at home, hasn’t he?

While the reader is pretty sure which way things are heading, there’s a neat twist at the end that leaves Brunetti with a difficult moral issue a the end. While he knows what happened it’s not the sort of case where you’d want to be revealing too much of what went on behind the scenes of the victim’s life.

And that, I think, is what makes this first title in an extensive series so remarkable. Donna Leon has managed to deliver what was originally a one-off joke prompted by a friend’s suggestion that she try writing a crime novel and put in place elements that are good enough to keep her, and the reader, going through twenty titles without adding too much to the original mix.

Of course, when you’ve got a setting like Venice, an eye for detail, and an intimate knowledge of sensibilities in La Serenissima, you’ve probably got a walk up start, but Brunetti’s an engaging character, the interactions with his family down to the surreptitious support for an anti-capitalist son who gloats over winning at Monopoly work, and his dealings with his loathsome boss reflect a degree of pragmatism in a character who’d be, one suspects, an idealist by inclination.

© Ian Hughes 2012