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BY its COVER (2014)

Donna Leon

'Oh, if only his mother could see her boy now, kissing the hand of a contessa. Her palazzo wasn't on the Grand Canal, but Brunetti was certain his mother would not mind in the least: it was still a palazzo, and the woman who had offered him her hand was still a contessa'

§ Everyone is a detective these days, it seems. Take this bird Donna Leon -- she's written 27 or 28 of these Commissario Brunetti novels set in Venice. That's obsessive, isn't it? Junkies used to talk about feeding the monkey, and you wonder, who is the monkey here, the reader or the writer? But she's good. Smooth, bourgeois, evasive, calligraphic like Henry James, never quite getting to the point, domestic rather than industrial, escapist rather than revelatory, yet educational and atmospheric nonetheless. She has style, like the light in Venice, Canaletto or Turner, take your pick. This one, By its Cover, number 23 in the progression, is a real bibliophile's dream, gives credence to the maxim that literature is by the bourgeois for the bourgeois. You know, like poets writing poems about poetry or librarians lending to no one but themselves and a few select friends.

The obsessive madness of beauty and possession.

Donna Leon: By Its Cover

This Brunetti, though, he doesn't seem like a cop to me. More like a diplomat demoted to the provinces or a prof who decides to go into administration. Such a good boy, dangerously close to the Oedipus slave, loves his wife's cooking and the fact that he married into the porous edge of the Venetian aristocracy. He's such a gentleman, how could you not like him? No lead rubber truncheon or stun gun for this cop (or at least not in this novel). In a way, he's the perfect male soldier drone for a matriarchy, except you know Italy has too many naughty boys to fall into institutionalized passive aggression. But fiction is fiction and you have to allow an author some measure of idealism. I mean, if you want to run on the dark side, you can always read 'the Godfather of Italian Noir', Giorgio Scerbanenco. With Brunetti, Donna Leon is introducing her idea of normal into a genre that has normalized the abnormal for so long that the cops are as bad as the criminals they hunt. Golden Age Agatha Christie, you say -- Brunetti's just a cute little guy on a feminist leash who, like Poirot, grovels to high society, nearly faints when he gets to kiss the hand of a contessa. Not really... or at least, not always. Brunetti is like a second son in a second family who who just knows where he sits at the table.

Brunetti receives a call from Dottoressa Fabiani, the curator of the Mercula, a small local museum library for rare books and manuscripts somewhere in Venice. She's choked. Some important books are missing, others vandalized. Vandalized? Illustrated pages cut, stolen for the international collector's market most likely. Brunetti knows little about the rare books scene, so when he takes on this case, he gets educated about this special world where beauty and obsession establish value, both monetary and moral... and you get educated, unless you already know it all from hanging around Special Collections at your university or working in an antiquarian book store. It's a tight environment -- no books can be checked out and there's a guard to make sure nobody tries -- so it has to be an inside job, and there aren't many suspects to choose from.

There's a long time reader called Aldo Franchini, a former priest whom the staff have become quite fond of, call him 'Tertullian' because he just sits there day by day like a monk devoted to the study of the great Christian philosophers. Well, you know who Tertullian is, naturally -- a third century AD Christian thinker from Cathage, that Roman outpost in North Africa, just ruins today of course, but inspiring... remember Patton's reverie at the site when he takes some time out from fighting Rommel? So this Tertullian has to be a suspect, if only because his namesake was a bit of a shitkicker, despite being a mystic.

And then there's the other reader, an American, a recent arrival. Dr. Joseph Nickerson, Phd, Assistant Professor of Mediterranean Trade History, University of Kansas. The name has you laughing, right? But it's true to type, and you're thinking this is another academic who's never lifted a shovel in his life, talks the talk, gets the grant, holidays in Venice... except he never actually appears in Brunetti's shakedown. Mind you, Brunetti moves pretty slowly between office, museum, cafes, canals, home and his father-in-law Count Orazio's palazzo so it's a marvel that he interviews anyone beyond his boss's assistant, Sigorina Ellectra or his old Neapolitan lawyer pal Giulio who buys him a natty, er, sartorial Neapolitan suit... but then that's the way it is in Venice, isn't it? Crowded, congested, social... 20 Euros for two coffees at Florians, as that's what Brunetti has to cough up when he interviews the only dame on the horizon, Signora Marzi, the forty something assistant of the Marchese Dolphin. Short hair, double-breasted suit, no interest in books, doesn't read, probably never had to. You can guess her role.

Then there's Sartor, the museum guard, a nice old guy who doesn't read much either but seems to be the best source of information about Tertullian and Nickerson, how they behaved in the reading room. By this time you're thinking maybe the curator is the criminal, Dottoressa Fabiani, that she robbed herself (so to speak) as she's very slow on providing real information, like just how many books are missing and vandalized, and what the cash value of all this is. She's dismayed that among the missing books are a few that were donated by the Contessa Elisabetta Morisoni-Albanis, a former Sicilian princess and friend, as it turns out, of Brunetti's mother-in-law. Small world, isn't it?

This Contessa gets your interest. Great character, but unfortunately not one who plays any significant role in the action, despite all appearances to the contrary. Basically, she's a false flag -- among several -- and there's nothing wrong with that within a fiction narrative, especially a mystery narrative. But she's so loaded into the early action that you expect -- nay, demand -- that she reappear in someway or in some form at the end. Now you might say this grievance is petty, is a failure to recognize that Leon has shifted the narrative from genre to mainstream in a clever side-step out of the cliché. She cheats the cheat narrative: there's a murder midway, and after that fortuitous event, character takes over from plot, and the Tertullian 'trinity' resolves. Clever? Certainly is but we all miss the Contessa Elisabetta nevertheless.

"Forget the articles about men who suffer a mad passion for maps and books and manuscripts: that's all romantic nonsense. Freud in the library." [the Contessa Elisabetta to Commissario Brunetti]

The Contessa Elisabetta donated to the Mercula in order to gain acceptance into Venetian aristocratic society, although, as Brunetti's mother-in-law says, she never will as she's an outsider. Brunetti's wife Paola describes her as: "Intelligent, independent, impatient, lonely" so you get this image of an exotic old world grand dame, an opinionated exotic who's also described fondly as "a good hater, dealing out her contempt equally to Church and State, Left and Right" and evidence "of the inherent democracy of women." For Brunetti, it's all the courtly love convention, and he's driven to recover the stolen books or at least expose the thief simply to restore some measure of happiness. His naiveté is charming, even though this Contessa is a hardened, cynical survivalist in the closed emotional prison of Venetian social politics. And of course her step-son Gianni -- who has a record for vandalism, shop-lifting, dope and other sleazy stuff typical of the aristocratic wastrel in this age and any other -- is briefly a suspect for the reader, who always expects him to make an appearance, although he never does, just floats off-stage as another false flag.

Because this character is built up much more than some of the others, such as Dottoressa Fabriani or Signora Marzi or even Nickerson, you can't view her simply as a walk-in. But of course this novel is just one chapter in the series, so characters can disappear and recur like stitches in the larger tapestry. Do these ones? Don't know but I doubt it.

Donna Leon's dialogue is, by need, expositional, but broken up with a lot of body language detail, little quirks in the psychological portraiture. No clichés, no dead stage business, cigarettes and booze, and walks to the window, although these things happen occasionally. Very good nuancing of behaviour, detailing of peculiarities rather than oddities... the sensitivities of people rather than just reactions and theatre-for-theatre's-sake. Her characters move and act within strict protocols, the inherited rituals of ancient manners, where boundaries are subtle, provocation an art. Signals are sent, messages arrive in dream, that sort of thing. There are no parallel lines in Leon's Venice.

Like Camilleri's Sicilian detective Montalbano, Brunetti's down-time is as important as the time spent at work because work is always with him, even in domestic situations. His wife Paola tells him about some blackmail scam the Tax Police (La Finanzia) are (maybe) working on a local restaurateur and Brunetti, who's fagged from a hard day trolling the canals and calli doesn't want to hear it, doesn't want to complicate the case on hand or his personal morality with tales of (maybe) police corruption. As he helps himself to some grub left in the oven, he thinks, 'the woman might be a troublemaker but she knew how to cook'. The human touch, si?

This minor incident however touches on Leon's main theme when considering the ambiguity of crime and the moral response. When is a crime a crime? Is it possible to be both a good person and a criminal? Paola certainly thinks so. Just because the restaurateur issues no receipts because he can't balance his books, make a go of it otherwise, he's a crook? The government is to blame for this state of affairs, for victims "like him and all the other people who are honest but can't live honestly".


So, does the cruise ship seen at the beginning play any role in this mystery?

Donna Leon: good writing, atmospheric in the way that the early Isabel Allende is, and nowhere near as nasty as Patricia Highsmith or some of these other songbirds of death.

© LR April 2017

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