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When the Chief Librarian of the Biblioteca Merula in Venice discovers that someone has been vandalising their collection of rare antiquarian books, Commissario Guido Brunetti is called in to investigate. At first it looks like an art theft – illustrated pages have been cut from the books and Brunetti soon learns that there is a market for these amongst unscrupulous but fanatical collectors. It seems obvious who the guilty party is – a man masquerading as an American academic, who has now disappeared. But as Brunetti tries to track him, the case takes an altogether darker turn when another regular user of the library is brutally murdered.
Old paper, old books, had always filled Brunetti with nostalgia for centuries in which he had not lived. They were printed on paper made from old cloth, shredded, pounded, watered down and pounded again and hand-made into large sheets to be printed, then folded and folded again, and bound and stitched by hand: all that effort to record and remember who we are and what we thought, Brunetti mused. He remembered loving the feel and heft of them in his hands, but chiefly he remembered that dry, soft scent, the past’s attempt to make itself real to him.
Although this is the 23rd in the series, it’s the first of the Brunetti novels that I’ve read. I found it a thoughtful and rather leisurely read with the emphasis as much on describing the way of life in Venice as on the crime, and this came as a very pleasant change from so many of the current crime novels with their emphasis on violence, grittiness and action. Brunetti is something of an old-fashioned detective, an upright moral man (no drink problem, no maverick tendencies, happy family life – yay!) with a meditative mind. He is well aware of the corruption and class divides in his society, but seeks to get to the truth regardless of any political pressure that may be put on him. His relationship with his wife comes across as very authentic, while her more aristocratic background allows him access to the upper echelons of society in a way that wouldn’t be possible for an ‘ordinary’ policeman.
The Venetian society Leon portrays seems to be stuck back in a time when birth is even more important than money and where forelocks are still expected to be tugged on a regular basis. Whether this is an accurate portrayal, I don’t know, but I found it convincing. Leon also shows how corruption is preventing the city from taking the urgent action needed to preserve this unique place, and how the political system itself plays into the hands of those who care more for profit than for the city’s long-term viability. Much of this story revolves around religious books, which means that Brunetti also does a fair amount of musing on the status of religion in the modern world.
I found all of these things intriguing and enjoyable and felt the sense of place in the book was exceptionally strong. At first, in fact, I wrongly assumed that I was reading a translated work from a native of Venice, but subsequently discovered that Leon is American, although she has lived in Venice for a quarter of a century. Where the book fell down a little was on the investigation. Actually, there was very little real investigation as Brunetti meandered around Venice avoiding the obvious actions (like taking forever to contact the Arts Crimes specialists, for instance). And to be honest I didn’t think the motivation for the murder was very well explained at all – that part left me totally unconvinced, while the odd abruptness of the ending left me turning back to see if I had missed something. However, these plotting problems didn’t take too much away from the overall pleasure I got from the quality of the writing and characterisation, while the descriptions of Venice and its society raised the book well above the average. I will certainly be reading more of this series, and thoroughly recommend the book despite its few weaknesses.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.