When I come across a crime series I enjoy, there’s a certain pattern to my reading. At first, I devour instalments one after another until I’ve eventually caught up with the author. After that, there’s usually one or possibly two instalments that are due out shortly after I’ve caught up and then, finally, I slip into a tormented pattern of longing for the next one to be published and cursing any diversion by the author into writing books that don’t form part of the series.
And so it has been for a long time with Donna Leon’s Brunetti series. I eagerly anticipate each new book and pre-order them so as to get my grubby mitts on them as soon as possible. Recently, however, I’ve noticed a certain unevenness in the series, with some episodes seeming a little lacklustre.
I would guess that part of this is down to the sheer longevity of the series. With a central cast that rarely changes (the rise in prominence of officers Pucetti and Griffoni being the only additions of recent note), there’s a limit as to how fresh the books can be and, if truth be told, I do appreciate the familiarity that long acquaintance brings. One of Leon’s hallmarks is the centrality of Brunetti’s family life to the stories and so the regular passages set around the dinner table or in their living room are very much like settling into an old pair of slippers - comforting and to be luxuriated in.
The other “Leon factor” if you like is her concern with the social and political issues Italy, and Venice in particular, is faced with. At her best, Leon brings these out and debates them by means of plot elements, subtle dialogue and background cameo scenes. At her worst (and, I suspect, most enraged) they end up being either a little bit ranty or thumpingly didactic.
By Its Cover, the 23rd Brunetti novel, sits somewhere towards the better end of the Leon range. At its beginning, Comissario Guido Brunetti of the Venice police is contemplating the onset of spring whilst dealing with an altercation between two water tax drivers. He is interrupted by a phone call requesting his presence at the Biblioteca Merula, where it soon becomes clear that a thief has been at work, stealing valuable works and even cutting pages out of other rare volumes. Suspicion soon falls on an American researcher who has been working at the library, although Brunetti is also intrigued by the library’s other regular, a former priest known as Tertullian for his apparent love for the writings of the fathers of the Church.
Inspired by the ongoing Italian problem with art theft and by the massive theft of books from the Girolamini Library in Naples by its own director in 2012, By Its Cover is likely to engage any book lover, as well as crime fiction fans. Leon uses the novel to explore not only her customary themes of Italian bureaucracy and institutional corruption but more esoteric issues that will probably only engage book lovers, such as whether books are valuable for themselves as objects or for the texts that they carry. For the record, I, like Guido, am on Team Text - although a particular book may have an extrinsic value through its production or its historicity, ultimately, the book only exists as a means to transport the text to the reader.
Over the years, Leon’s books have moved from pure detective stories to explorations of social issues using the form of the detective story as the structure within which to do so. She has also given the city of Venice itself and the personal lives of Brunetti and his circle increased prominence to the extent that there is no murder (and, like it or not, murder is the overwhelming raison d’etre of almost all crime fiction) until halfway through the book.
It’s mainly for this reason that I would recommend new readers to begin at the beginning with Death at La Fenice and carry on through. The existing fan can be assured that this is an excellent entry in the Brunetti series, albeit one with a lightly abrupt and unusually loose ending. There are few detectives with whom I enjoy spending time more and I must now endure the long wait for Leon’s next book.