I’ve always loved Venice: the idea of a city that exists in a place where no city really should but does anyway (like New Orleans); a city with a long and remarkable history that at one time was one of the major powers of the world, despite not really having much population yet somehow carving out an empire; and always dreamed of visiting there. When Paul and I lucked into our marvelous trip to Italy back in 2014 (I think it was 2014? I could be wrong, it may have been 2015 but it really doesn’t matter) I definitely wanted to include Venice in our itinerary. We wound up only being there for twenty-four hours, but I was enchanted (I was enchanted by all of Italy, really), and have always wanted to go back and spend more time there. We were incredibly lucky when we were there; it was the week before Labor Day weekend, and there were no real crowds there (I have since seen horrible pictures of crowds so thick you can barely move), and we just wandered around looking at beautiful buildings and crossing canals and going into churches and eating gelato–lots and lots of gelato (which was every day, everywhere, while we were in Italy–we even got some at the airport when we flew back out).
Venice is also the setting for my all-time favorite novella and movie based on it (Daphne du Maurier’s “Don’t Look Now”). I love the Katharine Hepburn film Summertime, in which a lonely unmarried teacher comes to Venice and is also enchanted by how gorgeous the city is, and also finds a bittersweet romance with a handsome Italian man. One of my favorite parts of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is set there. I finally read Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” as part of my “plague days” reading last year when COVID-19 shut down the country; as well as Daphne du Maurier’s take on the tale, “Ganymede.” John Berendt’s City of Falling Angels, about the La Fenice fire and the insanity in rebuilding the fabled opera house, was a remarkably insightful look at how things work in Venice, as well as the restoration works on the city and its gnarled bureaucracy, as well as the blasé attitudes of the locals about how corrupt and insane everything is there.
It goes without saying that the similarities between Venice and New Orleans are striking, and run much deeper than the constant threat of water and Carnival.
I started writing a novella this year set in Venice–which I’ve wanted to write about ever since I visited–and at some point I will revise it to get it ready for publication; it’s on my to-do list–and so naturally, Christopher Bollen’s A Beautiful Crime was added to my TBR pile as soon as I knew of it.
And what a delight it turned out to be.
Down below the cry of gulls, below floors of tourists undressing and dressing for dinner, below even the shrinking figure of his killer. a man lies crumpled and bleeding. He’s been dead for only a few seconds. He’s sprawled on his stomach, his body twisted at the hips, his left arm hooked in a U above his head. From a distance, from high above, he looks almost as if he were sleeping. It’s the blood leaking through his pink shirt that gives the crime away.
Outside, the sun is setting on what is unarguably the most beautiful city on the planet. There are a lot of dead bodies in this town. Upstairs in the man’s room, an English guidebook recommends taking a boat out to San Michele to visit an entire island of them. Among the legions buried there are the composer Igor Stravinsky, the ballet director Sergei Diaghilev, and the poet Ezra Pound.
The city is sinking and has been for centuries. Enjoy it while you can. The blood is pooling around the body. Screams are blaring from all directions. The killer is making a run for the exit.
But none of this has happened yet.
I don’t think I’d heard of Christopher Bollen before I heard about this book; I may have read some of his work (he writes for both Vanity Fair and Interview magazines), but I was not prepared for how good this book would be.
And the really good news is its his fourth; he has three more books for me to read and cherish and enjoy. Huzzah! (It’s always delightful to discover a new-to-you writer you love, isn’t it?)
The premise behind this book is pretty genius: a young gay couple who have fallen quickly and madly in love with each other, come up with a “foolproof” plan to con a wealthy douchebag out of enough money for the two to ride off into the sunset together after paying off their unsurmountable debt…and Venice is where the action happens. Bollen spent time in Venice interning at the Peggy Guggenheim museum, which pays off in this complex and riveting noirish thriller. Bollen brings Venice to life in a way that few other writers have; you can smell the canals, taste the food, enjoy the bite of the liquor and savor the wine and the spellbinding beauty of the city through the eyes of his characters.
Our young, intrepid gay couple are Nick Brink and Clay Guillory. Nick came to New York to escape his sterile and stale childhood home in the Midwest, and soon has a very well-to-do older man in love with him; Ari, who is an expert in antique silver and runs one of the few silver businesses left in the country. Nick loves Ari, but it’s not a deep passionate love; it seems more like gratitude and appreciation more than anything else. Ari does love Nick, but his plans for their future (he also employs Nick at the silver shop, which is pivotal to the plot of the book) are making Nick claustrophobic and feeling trapped. Nick looks at the years ahead with Ari (and possibly a child) and is terrified of what his life will become; while this is stable and nice and everything he could have possibly wanted…now that he has it, he’s not sure it is what he wanted after all.
Clay is the surviving companion of an older gay man, Freddy van der Haar, last scion of one of the first families of New York (going back to the days of New Amsterdam and the Dutch settlement); Freddy was one of the last surviving colorful characters of the wild and crazy Bohemian artist scene in New York, and had the wealth to really pursue the kind of life and lifestyle that no longer seems possible or to exist anymore. Everyone, of course, believes Clay is a gold digging conniver who may have even murdered Freddy for the inheritance. But the truth is not how it appears on the surface; there was no money left, and Clay has even gone deeply into debt taking care of Freddy as he declines slowly into death. Clay owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to student loans and medical bills, and doesn’t see any way out of his situation.
The two meet by chance at Freddy’s memorial service; Ari knew Freddy, of course, and Nick doesn’t want to be there. He slips out for air and meets Clay on the steps–Clay isn’t attending (he knows very well what Freddy’s friends think of him) but just wants to make sure that the flowers he ordered arrived. They encounter each other again shortly thereafter, when Clay brings in the last of the van der Haar silver collection for appraisal and possible sale; unfortunately it’s all worthless junk. But the mutual attraction is there, and soon Nick is slipping away from work and his shared apartment with Ari for afternoon trysts at Clay’s inherited brownstone in Brooklyn, which he is selling to help pay down the debts of Freddy’s estate as well as his own.
And the two lovers come up with a plan: part of Clay’s inheritance is a small piece of a palazzo in Venice which the van der Haars once owned completely. The rest of the palazzo is now owned by a wealthy investor named Richard West (whom Freddy despised), who has an obsession with the van der Haar family and wants to possess some of their silver. Why not have Clay try to sell the junk to West, and have Nick–who works for an antique silver firm, after all–falsely authenticate it so they can pay off all that debt and live happily ever after? West is a major scumbag, after all, who fucked Clay over once already; and is it really a crime to fuck over someone who is so awful? Not only will their debts be paid but Clay will finally have vengeance against the man who cheated him out of his dream job…and so begins the game of cat-and-mouse.
And what a delight it is. Bollen is a terrific writer–his gift for sentences and paragraph construction is amazing–and his characters all seem quite real. He peoples the book with a terrific supporting cast, all of whom are actualized; from Daniela the transwoman (who is old school; refuses the term “trans”) with whom Nick stays in Venice, to Freddy himself to West and his entourage. As the deception goes deeper, the pacing also begins to pick up, as well as the sense of dread as they change and adapt their plan and decide to go for even more money…and like the best Hitchcock films and all great noirs, the deeper they get into the deception, the more dangerous the game becomes.
Venice itself is a character; Bollen writes about the city with such love and affection that it becomes impossible to imagine the book being set anywhere else–and he also addresses the primary issue in Venice: the crowds of tourists and the outsiders buying apartments to rent out as Air BnB’s, thus driving up the cost of real estate and living in the city that is forcing the locals out (just like New Orleans! Something else the two have in common!)–and this also plays an integral part in the story.
I loved this book, and even though for a while it was making me think I need to scrap my Venice novella…I soon realized I don’t have to. My novella is in the perspective of a tourist falling in love with the city, whereas Bollen’s is written from the POV of someone with intimate, personal knowledge of the city that comes from living there and truly experiencing what it is to be a Venetian.
Highly recommended; it’s a great read.