By Its Cover (Commissario Brunetti 23) by Donna Leon

By Its CoverIntriguing and enjoyable…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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.

Donna Leon
Donna Leon

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.

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45 thoughts on “By Its Cover (Commissario Brunetti 23) by Donna Leon

  1. Mr. DR has read almost all her books! And really liked them! I think he finally got “tired”, but he did enjoy them. I’ve added them to my TBR.


  2. FictionFan – Oh, I like this series very much. Admittedly some are better than others, as you’d find with any long-running series. But taken as a whole it’s got such good characters, such a strong sense of place and a lot more. Glad you enjoyed this one.


    • Yes, I’d heard this wasn’t one of the strongest in the series, so was pleased to enjoy it as much as I did. I’m looking forward to reading some of the earlier ones.


    • I could invent some really fab reasons, but the truth is I was given it free!

      Medium-sized I would say – so not much good for weight-training purposes.

      Haha! Perhaps not how I would have described her, but yes, I see how it fits…


            • Fortunately I have 97 books to read before I need to decide…

              Have you started The Martian yet? (I’m sorry, but every time I ask it makes me chuckle…)

              Ooh, I think I prefer your own face…


            • Yet…

              Haha! You know the deal! (It’s getting very close to the read position on my list though…)

              This is becoming most surreal! Or perhaps something suitable for Tuesday Terror!


            • *chuckles and adds another three books*

              Asked? What a strange concept! OK, I’ll try it – I say, dearest C-W-W, how would you like to add hugely to my happiness by participating in a read-a long with me? Please feel free to say no – I’ll get over it in time… *sad face* (Huh! Bet he won’t be calling me trustworthy again any time soon…)

              Oh, good noodles! Bubbles is over on another thread telling me he’s imaginary too! I can’t have imagined you all, can I? That would be worrying beyond worry…


            • Not fair! You can’t do that! I’ll tell BUS!!!!!

              The read-a long part got me. I’d love to! Okay…I’ll let you know when I get it. Fair?

              Is he? *laughing* No, no, I’m real. And he’s quite real. I promise!


            • Oh she’d be on my side…gnomeness runs in the family…

              Haha! Poor C-W-W! No, no, you really don’t have to – I was just being mean. I shall read (and review) A Princess soon and you must read The Martian whenever (if ever) you choose.

              But I’m now beginning to wonder if I’m real…


            • Hmm…I think when he remembers who provides the tummy-tickles he’ll remember which side he should be on…

              Too late!!! IT’s been TBR Thursday’d – there’s no way out for me now…

              As real as…Mic?


            • I suppose the professor couldn’t offer anything better.

              I saw! Well…when’s it coming up exactly?

              Just because you don’t see Mic doesn’t mean he’s not real! Isn’t that an interesting thought?


            • I know my Tommy!

              No! I hate to say this, but I doubt it’ll take me longer than a few days to read once I start… *apologetic face*

              I’m beginning to think Mic might be quite sinister really…


            • Very wise!

              Ah but Nick’s probably rubbish at worm-hunting…as am I, I fear.

              He’s beginning to. One minute he exists, the next he doesn’t – he’s the boss, then he’s not – he’s pretending to be the Professor, then he’s pretending to be Bubbles…it’s all rather disconcerting! He’s clearly got something to hide. Is he on the run from Crackjaw?


            • It depends how you value these things. If you factor in the mental and physical challenge, the courage and skill, the excitement of the chase and the thrill of victory, I reckon it’s worth at least as much as reading a book. Then of course, there’s the added value that it makes me chuckle…

              As real as a chocolate frog! (When in doubt, go with chocolate – my general rule in life.)


  3. Glad this has whetted your appetite for more Brunetti – I do love most of the earlier books, this particular one was not quite the strongest of the series. As Margot says, inevitable for such a long-running series.


    • Yes, although there were some weaknesses in the plot – especially the way it ended – I enjoyed the writing style and the more thoughtful approach than some of the very action-oriented crime of the moment. Looking forward to backtracking to some of the earlier ones… 🙂


    • Yes, it’s pretty impressive that she can still come up with one that felt fresh enough to entice me to read some of the earlier ones. I liked the slightly slower, more thoughtful approach – a bit old-fashioned in style maybe, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.


  4. I keep trying this series because so many of my friends think highly of them but they never really grab me. I think you’ve put your finger on it when you say that the investigation is the weak link. That has been the case in several of the ones I’ve tried and I do like a tortuous twist to my investigations.


    • Ah, interesting – I assumed the investigation weakness might have been specific to this one. I’m not sure whether I could put up with it as a regular feature. However I’ll try one or two of the earlier ones – I did like the slower, more thoughtful approach she had compared to a lot of the current crime writers.


  5. I’ve read a few of these (though not this one) and I agree that the police-work is their weakness, but it’s such a pleasure to read books that don’t drown you in gore!


    • It is indeed! I’ve about reached my limit of current crime-writing except for the few authors I already know I like, so it makes a pleasant change to come across one who’s a bit more leisurely and thoughtful, and less graphic – in any way.


    • Sorry, no – I think this may be the only book I’ve ever read set in Venice…the only one I remember anyway. So (and it grieves me to admit it) I’m unable to add to your TBR this time… 😦


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