By its Cover: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery
Donna Leon’s novels featuring Guido Brunetti, Commissario di Polizia of the city of Venice,are among the mystery genre’s most reliably readable. Leon is a master of subtle inference and understatement; her gently relentless protagonist is not so much self-assured or confident as he is a quietly irresistible force in pursuit of the truth. This is especially true in BY ITS COVER, Leon’s latest Brunetti novel and one of her best in a long line of superb efforts.
The joy of the Brunetti canon is its over-the-shoulder look at the people, architecture and culture of Venice, presented within the context of Brunetti’s observations as he moves from Point A to B throughout the city. It is impossible to exaggerate how wonderful these are. Two stand out in BY ITS COVER. The first involves a squabble between gondolier drivers over a fare and how the disagreement came to be, both on the surface and at its heart. The second concerns the damage that cruise ships are allegedly doing to the city of Venice, and why any correction almost undoubtedly will be less than forthcoming in the foreseeable future. Brunetti’s wry internal observations and musings about everything from his superiors to his family are reason enough to come to the feast, even without the mystery.
"BY ITS COVER is not full of suspense, action or fistfights; Leon unapologetically sets her stories firmly in the traditional mystery genre and to magnificent effect."
Leon, as is her practice, is in no particular hurry to get to the explosions and such that so many authors place at the start of the tale. Instead, the beginning of the book involves Brunetti going to the library. Actually, it’s not just any library, but the Biblioteca Merula, a prestigious Venetian library where several one-of-a-kind books have been vandalized by having pages removed from them. The cloud of suspicion quickly rests upon an American scholar who has been frequenting the library for many weeks. An inventory is performed and establishes that a number of valuable volumes have gone missing as well. It is possible that the vandalism and the thefts have been committed by two (or more) individuals, or just one. Brunetti observes, asks his questions and researches, with the assistance of the beautiful and enigmatic Signorina Elettra, ostensibly his secretary who runs the office.
The case has some personal ties to Brunetti, as one of the library’s wealthiest and most generous donors happens to be a friend of his mother-in-law. As he continues his probing, someone who may have knowledge of the mysterious American professor is murdered. The solution to the crime is linked to the vandalized and missing antique books, with the apprehension of the culprit of one all but certainly leading to the other doer. Leon gives readers bits and pieces of the puzzle as they are fed to Brunetti, so that one can solve/guess the killer in due time, but not too early in the proceedings. There is just one thread dangling at the end, which may or may not be resolved in a future volume. Regardless, you’ll want to come back.
BY ITS COVER is not full of suspense, action or fistfights; Leon unapologetically sets her stories firmly in the traditional mystery genre and to magnificent effect. I know of people who read only one book a year, and it happens to be a Donna Leon title. Not only is this an incredible compliment, it is a testimony to her work, which is always first rate.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 4, 2014