Comissario Guido Brunetti of the Venice Police Department is reading witness statements about an altercation between two water-taxi drivers — and seriously considering a coffee — when a call comes in from one of the city’s libraries.
Meeting with the chief librarian of the lovely Biblioteca Merula, Brunetti learns that someone has absconded with several volumes and a wealth of pages cut from the rare book collection. Immediate suspicions fall on a US researcher, though Brunetti’s curiosity is also piqued by a former priest who has been a fixture in the reading room for several years.
With its loudly reverberating echoes of the recent real-life thefts from the Girolamini Library in Naples, Donna Leon’s “By Its Cover” will both delight and strike fear into bibliophiles’ hearts. And, as is always the case with a Guido Brunetti mystery, there is more going on than meets the eye. Leon offers a finely drawn tale that encompasses theft, blackmail, emotional violence, and murder, as well as a rich array of characters, from the wealthy, aristocratic benefactor of the library to the institution’s guard, who quietly admits to Brunetti that he reads in his downtime at work: “That way I have something interesting to tell my wife when I get home.” While exploring the rare book world, Brunetti’s 23d outing also offers tantalizing glimpses into Venice’s palazzos, its cafes and bars, its buzzing canals and mellow backstreets.
Leon’s longtime protagonist is a thoughtful, introspective detective who never stops taking “a special delight in the surprising things he learned from people: they did and said the most unexpected things, both good and bad.” He wields his quietly discerning approach with the help of an unyieldingly supportive network that includes his incisive, amiable wife, Paola; the wry, dry taxi driver Foa; the flamboyantly dressed and highly efficient Signorina Elettra (her pink angora sweater causes Brunetti “immediately to revise his low opinion of both the colour and the wool”); and the wise and witty Ispettore Vianello.
Leon compellingly combines their workaday crime-solving with a detailed picture of a vanishing Venice, its gently telling street scenes and people — “most foreign men did not stand so close to one another during a conversation” — and the contemporary changes that are hastening the city’s demise. One scene in particular cuts to the heart of 21st-century cannibalization as Brunetti and Foa are library-bound in a water-taxi:
“Ahead of them was the stern of one of the newest, largest cruise ships. Its enormous rear end stared bluntly back at them, as if daring them to comment.”
“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? Suddenly the air was unbreathable as a capricious gust blew the ship’s exhaust down on them. . . . A vaporetto appeared on the other side, coming towards them, and the people on the deck, no doubt Venetians, raised their fists and shook them at the passengers, but the tourists were looking the other way and failed to see the friendly natives. Brunetti thought of Captain Cook, dragged from the surf, killed, cooked, eaten by other friendly natives. ‘Good,’ he said, under his breath.”
Donna Leon has never shied away from showcasing the damaging bureaucratic red tape and corrupt infrastructure of Italy and its effect on her beloved Venice. Here, woven into a story about both a love of books and a startling disregard for them — and with a vicious murder at the heart of it — there are particularly affecting passages, from the more overt destructive corruption to the direst scenarios of poverty and desperation.
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.