By Its Cover by Donna Leon

9780802122643_p0_v3_s260x420While reading Donna Leon’s latest mystery – By Its Cover – I remembered the first time I had heard of a book thief targeting rare books for their maps and illustrations.    When I lived in Maryland,   Gilbert Bland was caught stealing maps from rare books  in the George Peabody Library in Baltimore, Maryland.  In her publication “Preventing Library Theft,” Audrey Pearson noted:

“…Bland had used a fake identification card to use the library, and had been committing various premeditated thefts, with plans for many more recorded in his notebook. Upon further investigation, Johns Hopkins officials found that Bland had also visited the libraries at {other universities}. Many map dealers around the country had been purchasing the rare maps from Bland for some time, and had acknowledged that they always wondered how he continually had such great inventory… However, Bland had such low prices that most dealers chose not to question his practices… For all of the damage Bland did to libraries, and all of the hundreds of thousands of dollars of theft, Bland was only sentenced to eight to ten months in prison.”

Since that theft in 1995, other maps have been ripped from rare book collections in the United States, and in 2012, thousands of books in Naples’ sixteenth century Girolamini Library were systematically damaged and stolen for sale on the black market.  Donna Leon uses a rare books collection in a prestigious Venice library as the setting for the twenty-third in her series of Guida Brunetti mysteries.   This is my first experience with the expat American author and her hero in crime fighting, Guido Brunetti, Commissario in the Venice police force – how appropriate that the story is about books.

As Brunetti follows leads, including a former priest, an Italian playboy, and a Kansas professor, the murder of one of the prime suspects changes the rhythm of his pursuit.  I am only into the first 100 pages, but am already hooked.

If a mystery could be classified as literary, Leon may have found the formula.  Brunetti is well read and constantly including allusions in his conversation; his appreciation of the beauty of Venice and Leon’s descriptions through his thoughts and observations creates a beautiful backdrop and an appealing counter to the grisly reality of crime and corruption in the city.  At one point, Brunetti reminisces about the time he ran away to work in the fields for a day when he was twelve years old.  Returning home with his pittance wage, his mother asked him if he now realized “how hard a person had to work if all they had to work with was their body.” Lesson learned: “…all you’ll do is work for enough to eat. Even then I knew, I didn’t want to spend my life like that.”

The erudite police commissioner reads English history books at night, has conversations about philosophy with his wife, and stops to smell the Spring flowers on his way to work – all the while using his intellect to solve crimes.  But perhaps his comments on the political realities of the city offer the best insight into his internal struggle – the cruise ships ruining the canals, the corruption of the rich, the influence of the Church…  Brunetti’s character is as fascinating as the mystery he is solving.

 

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