Written by Donna Leon — Donna Leon is one of the leading lights of crime fiction set in Italy. She has made the Venetian lagoon her own, with occasional forays to the nearby Dolomites with her long-running series featuring Commissario Brunetti and his family. This is the 23rd book in the series and, inevitably perhaps, it is getting a little difficult to keep up the momentum and inject freshness over so many years.
In By Its Cover, Brunetti investigates a major theft and act of vandalism in a public library – a topical subject, following the real-world plundering of valuable antique books in a Naples library recently. Several of the books belonged to a private benefactor who might withdraw her donation to the library when she finds out the extent of the damage. The culprit appears to be an American professor who requested several of the defaced books but closer inquiry reveals that his name and credentials were fake.
The only person who might have witnessed what the imposter was up to is a former theologian, known as Tertullian. Brunetti tries to track this recluse down, although his delicate mental state might mean he’s not the most reliable of witnesses. Things take a sinister turn, however, when Tertullian is found brutally beaten to death. Could this be a coincidence? Brunetti does not think so, but finding the link and proof may be more difficult.
This is a gentler story than the usual Brunetti fare, with no dead body turning up until halfway through the book. It also feels more overtly political than many of the previous novels in the series. Almost every conversation features a complaint about incompetent government or wide-spread corruption. These rumbles of discontent have been present before, but were handled more subtly, through witty banter and lively exchanges of ideas. In this book, it feels more like a rant. Meanwhile, the ending is rather too abrupt for my taste, as if the author had run out of steam.
Long-standing fans of the series will enjoy catching up with the Brunetti clan. They include not only his fiery wife Paola, his (now teen-age) children and his aristocratic in-laws, but also Signorina Elettra at the office and other regular members of cast. Some authors introduce too many personal changes in the lives of their main character in an attempt to keep the series moving, but Donna Leon wisely avoids that. Any changes are gradual and organic – the children grow taller and more independent, the relationship with the father-in-law mellows, and Brunetti becomes more diplomatic when handling his superiors.
We continue to observe the idiosyncrasies of Venetian society, its impenetrable dialect, the secrets behind closed doors, how much of it remains inaccessible to ordinary citizens. Yet we also enjoy the atmospheric descriptions of the city, the love of coffee, food and drink which is present in each volume, yet never overwhelms the story. Each book is self-contained, and you never feel you have missed out on the previous volumes of the series. You can become immersed in Brunetti’s world at any point, but on the whole I would recommend starting with another book in the series, as this one is not quite up to the usual high standard we have come to expect of Donna Leon.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars