Fresh Meat: By Its Cover by Donna Leon

By Its Cover by Donna Leon is the 23rd Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery about the Venetian police chief, whose  current investigation starts with stolen pages from old books and ends in murder (available April 1, 2014).

Ah, I remember it well. Searching the dusty shelves of the library in the basement of the gothic building, amidst ancient tomes and tattered volumes, I stumbled across a 19th century edition of Gustave Doré’s Illustrations for Paradise Lost. Breathtaking, and I couldn’t believe that the library would loan such a treasure. But loan they did. I so wanted to keep it that I renewed it several times. Reluctantly I returned the book, but I’ve thought of it several times over the years, and each time I think, “I should have kept that book.” I love books, all types of books, but I’d never before or since for that matter had such a strong desire to become a book thief. So I can identify with the thief in By Its Cover, Donna Leon’s latest addition to her Guido Brunetti series of novels set in Venice.

Brunetti, Commissario di Polizia of the city of Venice, is called to the Biblioteca Merula where Dottoressa Fabbiani, chief librarian, tells him of the theft of material:

“From the collection?” Brunetti asked. He knew the library, had used it once or twice as a student but had not given it a thought for decades.


“What’s been taken?” he asked.

“We don’t know the full extent yet. So far, all I’m sure of is that pages have been cut from some volumes.”

After questioning other staff members, it seems clear that the thief must be the American Professor from a Kansas university who has been working at the library for several days. He disappeared the day before the theft was noticed, and Brunetti finds, of course, that his credentials are phony.

Soon Brunetti is called to the scene of a murder. The victim: a regular patron of the Biblioteca. Are the two crimes somehow related? Brunetti thinks so, and talks to the victim’s brother Franchini for more clarification. Apologizing for the intrusion, Brunetti tells the man he is sorry, “but we need to know as much as we can about him”:

 “Will that bring him back?” Franchini asked, as had so many other people in the same circumstances.

“No. Nothing will, I’m afraid. We both know that. But things like this can’t be allowed to happen . . .”

“It already has,” Franchini interrupted.

The Latin came to Brunetti unsummoned “Nihil non tatione tractari intellegique voluit.”

The words washed over Franchini, who moved to the side and turned to take a better look at Brunetti. “There is nothing God does not wish to be understood and investigated by reason.” He failed to hide his astonishment. “How do you know that?”

“I don’t know why I said it, Signor Franchini. I’m sorry if offended you.”

The man’s face softened into a smile. “No, it surprised me; it didn’t offend me. It was the sort of thing Aldo was always doing. Not only from Tertullian, but from Cyprian and Ambrose. He had a quotation for everything,” he concluded and then had to wipe his eyes again.

“Signore,” Brunetti began, “I think it’s right to find out who killed your brother. Not because of God. Because things like this are wrong and should be punished.”

This brief exchange sums up Brunetti’s effectiveness. He is empathetic, learned, and believes in justice.

If any readers have drifted away from this long running series, it’s time to return. This is a story about books, and it’s set in Venice. Need I say more?

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Susan Amper, author of How to Write About Edgar Allan Poe, still mourns the loss of her Nancy Drew collection.

Read all posts by Susan Amper on Criminal Element.

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