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I confess I hadn’t heard of Donna Leon or Commissario Brunetti before I picked up this book but, being an eager reader of crime novels, I was willing to give it a try. Imagine my delight then to discover that By Its Cover is the twenty-third installment in a best-selling series I’d never before come across. (I’ll be going back to find more of them.)
One of Venice’s most prestigious scholarly libraries discovers that pages are being taken from its valuable antique volumes. (A crime to strike horror into any booklover’s heart!) Yet more books are missing. Commissario Brunetti is called upon to investigate. Although suspicion immediately falls upon a visiting American professor, Brunetti is also curious about an elderly former priest who has been using the library for many years to research ancient theology. When that ex-clergyman is found violently murdered, Brunetti is forced to delve deeper into the man’s murky past.
It’s tempting to compare Donna Leon and her Commissario Brunetti character to Ian Rankin and Inspector Rebus. Both are long-running, best-selling police series set in beautifully historic cities. However, unlike grizzly cantankerous Rebus, Commissario Brunetti is a positively functional character, with a happy marriage and reasonably normal family life, despite his having married into Venetian aristocracy. Like Edinburgh in the Rebus books, the city of Venice in this book almost become another character in the story. I really enjoyed the glimpses into Venetian contemporary life and its society. In one particularly evocative scene, Brunetti bemoans the damage being wreaked on the city by colossal cruise ships:
“Ahead of them was the stern of one of the newest, largest cruise ships… Seven, eight, nine, ten storeys. Was this possible? From their perspective, it blocked out the city, blocked out the light, blocked out all thought of sense or reason or the appropriateness of things. They trailed along behind it, watching the wake it created avalanche slowly towards the rivas on both sides, tiny wave after tiny wave after tiny wave, and what in God’s name was the thrust of that vast expanse of displaced water doing to those stones and to the centuries-old binding that kept them in place?”
I was heartened to read that Leon is herself a resident of Venice, having lived there for two decades, which gives the books some ring of authenticity. In fact, so authentic are her descriptions of neighbourhoods and buildings that there are, I believe, actual tours you can take in Venice of places mentioned in her books.
By Its Cover is a relatively concise story. The single storyline is an account of the police investigation into the theft of ancient texts. There is no complicating back story nor sub-plot. This makes for an easy read, and does away with any need to have read other books in the series. However, like me, you may find yourself wanting to read others if you have not discovered this series already.
Review by Tiffany Matsis
By Its Cover
by Donna Leon
Published by William Heinemann Ltd