Donna Leon’s latest Commissario Brunetti novel is like taking a trip to Venice

donna leonReading a novel by Donna Leon is like taking a trip to Venice, so vivid is the environment she creates on the page. By its Cover, published in Australia this week, is the 23rd in The Commissario Brunetti series but Leon’s books have always been much more than straightforward crime novels.

Brunetti is his own man but not in the confrontational, rebellious ways of Ian Rankin’s Rebus or Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole. Brunetti works within, but is not part of, the inherent corrupt system that is woven into every the fabric of the Venetians’ lives; from unpaid taxes to the broad-ranging bribery of officials; deliberate incompetence by police to the theft of evidence and the pillaging of the priceless artifacts from Venice’s history.

By its Cover opens with the chief librarian at the Biblioteca Merula, reporting the theft of antique books and the vandalism of others. The culprit appears to be the American professor who had been ostensibly accessing the books for research and who has now disappeared. But there is also the mysterious former priest nicknamed Tertullian by the staff for his daily routine of reading the works by the controversial ancient African theologian.

For the librarian it is a disaster, not simply the loss of irreplaceable literary treasures but the fact the missing tomes were part of a collection donated by Contessa Morosini-Albani, doyenne of one of the ancient noble families that still wield inordinate behind-the-scenes power in the modern city, and whose displeasure can end careers – or worse.

As in all Brunetti stories, there is no guns ablazing denouement. Instead it is the systematic piecing together of small scraps of information that leads to the solution – a mysterious encounter in the park, a brother’s confession, a not-so-subtle warning from Brunetti’s boss.

Sadly, although there are the usual layers of history and philosophy as well as the internal Italian tribalism, there was little of the usual food porn that is usually peppered through a Brunetti novel and has spawned an eponymous cookbook available in Venice. However, one of the new riffs that I forsee will become an increasing part of Leon’s focus, is the irreparable harm to the buildings being done by giant tourism liners granted permission after the payment of backhanders.

As they completed their turn into the bacino and looked forward again, they both gasped. There was nothing theatrical about it, no attempt to make a scene or a statement. They did no more than express their human response to the otherworldly and impossible. Ahead of them was the stern of one of the newest, largest cruise ships. Its enormous rear end stared bluntly back at them, as if daring them to comment. 

Seven, eight, nine, ten storey. Was this possible? From their perspective, it blocked out the city, blocked out the light, blocked out all thought of sense or reason or the appropriateness of things. They trailed along behind it, watching the wake it created 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? Suddenly the air was unbreathable as a capricious gust blew the ship’s exhaust down on them for a few seconds. And then the air was just as suddenly filled with the sweetness of springtime and buds and new leaves, fresh grass and nature’s giggly joy at coming back for another show. 

They could see, scores of metres above them, people lining the deck, turned like sunflowers to the beauty of the Piazza and the domes and the bell tower. A vaporetto appeared on the other side, coming towards them, and the people on the deck, no doubt Venetians, raised their fists and shook them at the passengers, but the tourists were looking the other way and failed to see the friendly natives.”

By Its Cover by Donna Leon is published by Random House Australia. visit Donna Leon’s site for more information about her books.

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