Tea in Literature — “Death at La Fenice”

By A.C. Cargill

Tea and a good book — what could be better? How about tea and a good murder mystery? Certainly. Even better when tea plays a part in one of the key scenes in the book. Imagine reading about people enjoying a good “cuppa” while you’re enjoying a good “cuppa” — sort of like mirrors mounted on opposite walls where the reflections go on into infinity.

Such a book is Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon. Not only is this an intriguing murder mystery, not only does it give a vision of Venice so realistic that you can almost smell the water in the canals, not only are the characters portrayed with more depth than most novels of this genre (P.D. James being the exception), and not only is the language rich and descriptive without a trace of elitism, but tea is definitely a key factor, not in solving the mystery, but in revealing part of the character of the story’s hero, Commissario Guido Brunetti.

Early in the novel, Brunetti, arrives home (a fourth floor apartment at the top of staircases that can be a hard climb after a long day of fighting crime) to his wife, Paola. He has been conducting his initial investigation into the death of a famous German orchestra maestro. The list of possible suspects is small but includes a famous singer, so Brunetti has to tread carefully when trying to ferret out the killer. The fact that the victim is famous, too, means he has to act quickly to assuage public outcry. A sticky spot for any detective. Over cupfuls of tea, sweetened with lots of honey, Brunetti’s wife can’t resist putting forth her opinion of “who dunnit,” even though she has always been wrong. Once they have exhausted this whole topic of conversation, they enjoy the rest of their tea in what the author describes as a “companionable silence.”

What an evocative phrase: “companionable silence.” And it’s a real tea moment!

The kind of tea isn’t specified, nor does it need to be. Whether the tea in their cups is a rich Pu-erh, smoky Darjeeling, fragrant Ceylon, or spicy Marsala Chai, a potful of tea lends itself to a bit of putting heads together over a problem, sharing views, or just conversing about the day’s events.

Leon, the author, is an American who lived in Italy, accounting for how keenly she seems to be tuned to the Venetian lifestyle, which includes lots of tea drinking. My personal experience when visiting Florence, Pisa, and other Tuscan towns, is that tea is just as popular as wine. Also, tea goes great with most Italian dishes. One of my favorites is a hearty dish of rice and seafood called risotto ai frutti di mare. Tea also does a splendid job of pleasing the discerning palate when imbibed with gelato (a rich Italian version of ice cream).

Boy, I suddenly have a taste for lasagna with a nice spumoni for dessert. All enjoyed with a good cup of tea and a thrilling murder mystery. Ciao!

Keep up with A.C. by checking out her blog, Tea Time with A.C. Cargill!

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