Before talking about the novel itself, I want to mention the awful job done by the publisher. The typography in the US edition, published by Grove Atlantic, was among the worst I have ever seen. It looked like it was done by a not especially gifted high school student. The choice of font was pretty questionable, and the publisher seems not to know the difference between apostrophes and proper quotes: apostrophes are the only form of “quote” characters used anywhere in the book. This is ridiculous. I would call it “amateur”, except that amateurs usually care about the quality of what they do, and Grove Atlantic clearly does not.

This is especially sad because this is a book about rare and beautiful books (though more about that in a moment). Brunetti is called in to investigate the theft of rare books and single pages from a library near the accademia. The thief is apparently an American who gave false academic credentials to the library to gain entrance. In the course of his investigation he finds that many other libraries have been similarly plundered, as well as the collections of private individuals. A possible witness is soon found brutally murdered, and the investigation of that murder leads to some unexpected revelations.

Well, not altogether unexpected, I think. Leon gives a pretty strong clue early on that there is (or ought to be) at least one suspect other than the mysterious scholar. But, oddly, in the summing up of the evidence, she seems to have forgotten about that clue and substitutes another.

This is really not a good thing in a murder mystery novel. There are certain rules of the genre. First, all the evidence has to be seen by the reader when it is seen or told to the investigator. Second, and this is the rule that is violated here, all the relevant evidence has to be brought to bear when the investigator closes in on the culprit.

It’s a minor omission, to be sure. But there were others. Early in the novel, Leon has both the person who donated the books to the library and the head of the library say almost the exact same words - specifically, making a distinction between books as text and books as objects. Neither character made reference to the other, and Brunetti, who heard those same words coming from two different people, made no mental comment on that fact. It looks to me like a sort of copy-paste-forget error. This should have been caught by the author or, otherwise, by the publisher. But the laxity of the publisher is something that we should now take as given.

There are a number of other small nitpicky complaints I could make about this novel. But the bigger problem I had with this book was the lackluster research that Leon put into it. Though this is a story ostensibly about rare books, we get little more than a list of a few rare book editions, revealing no real depth of knowledge of the subject domain. This was the same complaint I had a year or so ago about The Jewels of Paradise: a sense that there just wasn’t much effort put into the research needed to write the novel. At one point in the story she has Brunetti going on to wikipedia to do a few minutes of research; this was a bit ironic, because only a few pages earlier I found myself wondering if that was how Leon did her own research.

The novel is also really short. The publisher attempted to disguise this by using extraordinarily large print and ridiculously wide margins, as well as by adding an unusual number of blank pages. I call this the “late Robert Parker effect” - some of you will know what I mean. I assume the shortness of the novel is related in part to the apparent lack of effort Leon put into this book.

That’s all a bit harsh, I guess. In fact, I actually mostly enjoyed this book. It was nowhere near the standard set by the best of this series, but considered on its own it’s a pretty good read. But I suspect that we’re near the end of this series, and that Leon has grown tired of it. So, enjoy while you can.



Book cover

Metadata Info

  • Title: By Its Cover (Commissario Brunetti, #23)
  • Author: Donna Leon
  • Published: 2014
  • ISBN: 0802122647
  • Buy: Amazon search
  • Check out: Seattle library
  • Rating: 3.0 stars