Sunday, April 6, 2008

Death in Venice

The Veneto on the mainland across from Venice is a beautiful area with some extraordinary architecture. While you are waiting for Donna Leon's latest novel (see below), why not visit it in its Baroque glory? The wonderful mysteries of Beverle Graves Myers depict the 18th Century Venice, past its heyday as a mercantile empire as trade has shifted to the Atlantic, but still a maritime power, a city of luxury and culture, a city loving opera. Singer Tito Amato is able to move through the strata of society easily, his passport being his golden soprano voice. So when a wealthy couple—the wife has social pretensions—decide to stage an opera in their Veneto country mansion, Tito is a principal singer in the cast.

The set-up for Iron Tongue of Midnight(Poisoned Pen $25 Signed) is thus that of an Agatha Christie country house murder: a party assembled, motives galore, a crime, a circle of suspects, alibis, and a sleuth among the guests (Tito). Myers is a great admirer of the work of Robert Barnard who you may recall wrote three mysteries centered on Mozart under the name Bernard Bastable. So there's a bit of Barnard here, too. I like the importance of the bell—hence the title and its "iron tongue."

Tito's adventures began in Interrupted Aria ($15), a book praised by Ross King and set in Venice's theaters. for me on these levels.
. The Painted Veil ($15) takes you into the city's ghetto, that old iron foundry girdled by canals where some of Europe's Jews were allowed to settle, as Tito not only solves a murder but falls in love with a rebellious daughter of the Ghetto. In Cruel Music($15), Tito is blackmailed by the Doge into joining the household of an influential Cardinal in Rome in hopes of influencing an imminent Papal election. The hold over Tito is his brother Alexander, a trader who has been illegally dealing with the Golden Porte in Istanbul (treason by Venetian law). Other series characters include Tito's sister, his friend an English painter, who evokes that whole Grand Tour concept, and rival artists.

I read the Thomas Mann novel as part of a course on the Modern Theological Novel as an undergraduate, one of the most amazing literary journeys I ever took, and side by side with an entire quarter on Goethe's Faust taught by an exceptional German scholar. While I read for entertainment, I read for style, which both German gents had in spades, and for content, for a trip inside a world I might not otherwise enter, to learn new things, to be made to think.

The work of Donna Leon, 25 years an American passionate for opera residing in Venice, works for me on these levels. Girl of His Dreams ($40, Grove Atlantic $24 May), her latest case for Commissario Guido Brunetti, a survival (so far) of the bureaucracy and politics of the city's police, takes readers out of Venice once or twice and over to the mainland, the Veneto, into the gypsy camps. A girl has died of a fall in Venice, a girl engaged in robbing a residence. Who pushed her, if anyone? Her youthful companions in crime? More to the point, and more tragically, who will miss her? Leon's mystery becomes a voice for throwaway children. One reason to admire Brunetti is that despite the necessary compromises of the job, and some cynicism, he cares.

The island of glass, Murano, is easily reached by vaporetto from the city. At one time its foundries were central to Venice's economy. Today they are aimed more at the tourist trade. For two wonderful looks at Murano today, bearing its past in mind: David Hewson, The Lizard's Bite($6.99) and Donna Leon's Through a Glass Darkly(7.99). Both are highly recommended, even better if read together.
Hewson earlier penned a today-and-then literary mystery filled with Vivaldi in Lucifer's Shadow ($14).

For an aesthete's look at modern Venice, Fulbright scholar/novelist/ university lecturer Edward Sklepowich's Frail Barrier
(Severn $28), latest for literary biographer and amateur sleuth Urbino Macintyre and his dear friend Barbara, the Countessa Capo-Zendrini,

And for a truly chilling look at Venice's World War II history, you cannot do better than Joseph Kanon's espionage gem Alibi($14) and its record of betrayals. Kanon, like Alan Furst, has a genius for recreating the era and a grasp of its politics, ideals tarnished and bright, loyalties and agendas, that truly make you feel like a citizen of the time.

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