Murder is a good excuse…
…to read about Venice!
The neighborhood around the Guggenheim and the Dogana, crossing the Accademia Bridge, Bacino Orseolo, the Church of Santa Fosca, the Marciana, lunch on Torcello, a cabana on the Lido, the Scuola dei Morti, even the train station, all are sauntered through with compelling detail in Christine Evelyn Volker’s book Venetian Blood: Murder in a Sensuous City. I don’t know if I could pick out which neighborhood is Volker’s favorite because she seems to know so many of them so well, and that made me want to visit them all!
Volker also knows her history. I’ll admit–since most of my writing about Venice centers on history, I can sometimes be a pignolo * about details and facts that I see in other people’s books. No worries here–Volker sprinkles in ancient history, such as the barbarians visiting the outer islands or Doge Grimani’s coronation, as well as more recent history, like the oblique references to two organizations vying to restore Venice’s treasures.
The mystery centers around who killed a prominent philanthropistanderer. Okay, that’s my newly coined word for a philanthropist who is also a philanderer, in case you got lost in all those syllables. The prime murder suspect is one of his conquests–Anna, who is not easily cowed. She uses her knowledge of global finance and money laundering to zero in on the real killer. The complicated plot is not sempre dritto; it zigs and zags to keep you guessing who’s guilty–and who’s the next target. One murder isn’t enough, right? But I won’t say more than that because I would be the last one to give away too much.
As many of you know, I have a special place in my cuore for gondoliers, so I was thrilled to see them included as part of this story. I loved this particular passage, where an aged gondolier named Armando says, “We have more than four hundred sets of eyes and ears: a glimpse here, snatches of conversation there.” My experience bears this out: I remember a time I met a gondolier named Mimo at San Moise, and by the time I got across town to the traghetto at Santa Sofia, the gondoliers there already were expecting me to deliver his message. Never underestimate a gondolier!
For readers who speak Italian, they’ll be pleased to see a sprinkling of the language throughout the book. Most often, Volker provides the translation, but a couple of times she lets the context give you enough clues to figure it out. My Italian is far from perfect, but I enjoyed this style because it helped me feel like an insider while also sometimes challenging me to translate and put my language skills to work. Volker seems to like playing with language, whether in a character with a Texas drawl or an Italian speaking imperfect English.
This is a mystery book, but notice that the subtitle is about the senses. Volker slips in such details as Venice’s scents, textures, and sounds. Every Venetophile I know often refers to these details and will be pleased to encounter them in Venetian Blood.
Smells: “A smell of the sea whirled around them, filling their lungs with distilled brine…” or this lovely description as the “uniformed waiters pirouetted on the sidewalk, racing to serve eager-faced patrons.” The English teacher in me loves the metaphors like, “The passing ship strewing a frothy organza wake on the water.” However, I have to say it’s not fair to bring up “warm fig wrapped in prosciutto” when I’m reading my book in bed at ten p.m.
I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area of California, and Volker lives in this area as well. So when her protagonist Anna mentioned things like the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley or the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, I’d feel a little jolt of joy and recognition. That may not speak to every reader, but that level of familiarity with a place speaks to me.
I have a running joke with a fellow Venetophile about books and films that “give good Venice.” Venetian Blood does just that. You’ll get the mystery puzzler to untangle, but you’ll also get to walk down Venice’s calli, visit her buildings, and ride through her canals. Murder just gives you a good excuse.