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BY ITS COVER is Donna Leon’s 23rd Commisario Brunetti mystery novel and it follows the series’ tradition of immersing the reader in today’s Venice. The mystery revolves around a crime rooted in Italy’s ancient classics yet the country’s modern problems of corruption and over-bureaucracy are key to the plot.
The director of a privately-funded library full of rare and antique classic volumes discovers that books have been pillaged–drawings have been sliced out, rare illuminations taken. When Brunetti investigates, it appears that some books are missing from the library’s inventory. The culprit appears to be an American professor who has been doing research there for several weeks. Alas, he has disappeared, his bona fides are revealed to be false, and the criminal appears to have gotten away with his crime.
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Yet there are other leads for Brunetti to follow. The library owes much of its livelihood to an important patroness, affording Brunetti the opportunity to have a deep conversation about the value of books. The conversation doesn’t necessarily move the plot forward, but serves as a platform for an issue that Leon obviously feels deeply about.
BY ITS COVER refers to apparently real episodes of book looting and subsequent closure of libraries in Italy. Literary and national treasures are being lost in this way, and through Brunetti’s conversations, we understand what a huge loss to humanity this is.
While BY ITS COVER isn’t the most gripping Brunetti mystery, it may be the one with the most important message. As Brunetti slowly gropes toward a resolution to the library thefts, the familiar cast of the series’ characters both help and hinder. Vice Questore Patta plays his usual oversight role and his self-serving attitudes and political concerns remain as deliciously crass as always. Brunetti’s wife Paola and Patta’s secretary Elettra both assist in their own ways, while the faithful Inspector Vianello is still the able sounding board as Brunetti pieces together the elements of the case.
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Many of the more recent Brunetti mysteries refer to Italy’s political corruption and this one sustains the trend. Leon’s characters are uncomfortable speaking on the telephone, sure their conversations are being overheard. Nearly everyone has caustic remarks to be said about the inefficiency of government and the dishonesty of politicians. If you’ve read anything about the Berlusconi years, it isn’t surprising. The books only ring with greater authenticity for it.