Donna Leon, Part One: “Old books had always filled Brunetti with nostalgia for centuries in which he had not lived.” – from By Its Cover
There’s trouble at Venice’s Biblioteca Merula , an elite institution famed for its priceless collection of books and incunabula. Pages have been excised from certain books; whole books have gone missing. Commissario Guido Brunetti is called in to investigate. He and his team uncover a far reaching mare’s nest of theft, deception, fraud, and eventually – not to mention inevitably – murder.
As we loyal readers of this series have come to expect, plenty of social and political commentary finds its way into the story. Early in the novel, Brunetti is in the police launch, piloted by the skillful and reliable Foa, when they round a curve and come upon a scene that leaves them dumbstruck. It’s the stern of a gigantic cruise ship:
Seven eight, nine, ten storeys. From their perspective, it blocked out the city, blocked out the light, blocked out all thought or sense or reason or the appropriateness of things. They trailed along behind it, watching the wake it created it 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?
And that’s not all:
Suddenly the air was unbreathable as a capricious gust blew the ship’s exhaust down on them for a few seconds.
Curious to see what these behemoths looked like, I googled “large cruise ships in Venice.” Here are a few of the images I found (Be sure you click to enlarge, to get the full impact.):
At one point in Brunetti’s investigation, mention is made of the Biblioteca dei Girolamini in Naples. Donna Leon’s idea of using a vandalized library as the wellspring for the plot of a crime novel may have sprung from the real life depredations that were recently discovered to have taken place in Girolamini Library.
Beautiful place, n-est-ce pas? Ah, but what happened there is anything but….
Standing accused in a case of multiple thefts of rare and priceless volumes is the library’s former director and thirteen other individuals, including a priest. The New York Times reported on the crime in an article entitled “Rare Books Vanish, With a Librarian in the Plot.” (Alas, such a stain on the profession I love!)
Here’s what some reviewers (quoted in blurbs on this book’s back cover) have to say about Guido Brunetti:
“It is as a man of sensibility that this endearing detective most engages us.” New York Times
“The sophisticated but still moral Brunetti, with his love of food and his loving family, proves a worthy custodian of timeless values and verities.” Wall Street Journal
“Brunetti is the most human sleuth since Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret….A decent man [who achieves] a quiet heroism.” Philadelphia Inquirer
I can think of no better illustration of the above statements than the following scene, which occurs as the Commissario, after a day’s work, is returning home to his wife:
As he closed the door, he heard Paola call his name urgently from the back of the apartment. When he entered their bedroom, the last light was disappearing in the west, and silhouetted against it he saw his wife, bent to one side, as if in the grip of pain or frenzy. One arm was wrapped across her throat, the elbow pointing in his direction. Only half of her other arm was visible. He thought of swift-striking disease, a ruptured disc, a stroke. As he moved towards her, heart chilled, she turned her back, and he saw that the fingers of both hands were joined at the zipper of her dress.
‘Help me, Guido. It’s stuck.’
It took him a few seconds to conjure up the appropriate husbandlike behavior.
In just a minute or two, he is able to free the mechanism. “‘That’s fine now,’ he said and kissed her hair, saying nothing about the punch his lungs had taken.”
For me, By Its Cover is one of the best entries in the Brunetti series in quite some time. Rich with cultural references, touched with Leon’s trademark sardonic humor, and enlivened by a wonderful cast of characters, it is a real treasure.
Many of us who cherish Donna Leon’s oeuvre harbor a longstanding curiosity about her as a person. Her life has followed an unusual trajectory, starting in New Jersey and ricocheting all over the world from one country to the next before fetching up in La Serenissima for good. When I saw that she’d published a collection of essays on a variety of subjects, I was eager to get the book. I’ve now read about half of the pieces in it, and it’s been interesting, to say the least. I’ll have more to say about My Venice in an upcoming post, Donna Leon Part Two.