When I taught freshman English for many years, it was all about suicide. Romeo and Juliet. Antigone. Dead Poets Society. Eek! How could we have any fun in a classroom like that? And yet we still found ways to play and laugh together.
So when I read the murder mystery The Venetian Game by Philip Gwynne Jones, you’d wonder why I smiled so much. There’s a murder, for gosh sakes! Multiples, even. And more threats of murder! And yet, I found myself smiling at the protagonist Nathan and his best friend Dario philosophizing over a Pink Floyd album, or Nathan’s thick-headed bafflement when Federica flirts obliquely with him. Or even a wry smile at a reference to Glen Gould or a pair of petty criminals characterized as Long Hair and Glasses. Who says murder can’t be fun?
Jones’ Venice is not merely that of palaces and grand churches, though those do pop into the story. When Nathan seeks out an informant on Giudecca, in the nether reaches of the island’s residential alleys, I recalled visiting a friend in that very neighborhood with its newish apartment buildings stacked next to grungy gardens past a failing fence. Or Nathan’s visit to the local communist hang out reminded me of being invited into the Old Men’s Drinking Room (at least that’s what I thought the sign outside the door said) that I once visited in Cannaregio. How does Jones know about all these out of the way spots?
If you read his first book, The Venice Project, you’ll know that he and his wife packed their life into a bunch of boxes and shlepped it all to Venice, where they have lived ever since, eating squid and other squishy Venetian delicacies. Philip teaches English and enjoys a sunset drink at Nico’s on the Zattere now. He also contributed a chapter to First Spritz Is Free, telling the story of falling in love with what became his home city. (Click on the title to access the link to your free copy!)
Here’s another thing to smile about: Check out this prose: “Venice was drowning under a tsunami of tourists, and Something Had To Be Done. Of that, Il Gazzettino was certain. It didn’t know what, but it had no doubt that Something, ideally sooner rather than later, Had To Be Done.” Hihi! (That’s Italian for heehee.) See–fun writing, too! And one more word: Gramschi. The cat. I won’t try to explain the pleasures of Gramschi because it would be like explaining why someone should watch cat videos on YouTube. The pleasure is in the doing, not the hearing about the doing.
And sometimes I smiled not from the humor but from delight, such as when Philip has characters discussing Venetian artists and then Marietta Robusti comes up. Not Titian or Bellini or Tintoretto (her father), but one of the city’s lesser-known artists, and a woman who is often overlooked. It’s refreshing and a little unexpected to see her name on the page. Another delight was the sprinkling of Venetian dialect, such as Dario using the endearment “vecio” with Nathan–a term a couple of my gondolier friends yell across the water. I never knew how to spell this word, which means something like “old man” (or vecia for “old woman” when the guys use it on me) though they mean it in the sweetest way possible.
In Chapter 11, we hear the phrase “Venetian game,” and my English teacher radar went ding ding ding! I’ll admit, I love when authors do that, just like when they bring a story full circle or reintroduce a theme later in the story. I know, post-modernism and all that, but hey, there’s a certain satisfaction in neatness.
Philip’s Nathan is in the interesting position of being the English Honorary Consul to Venice, which gives him the opportunity to meet an array of locals and visitors. But I won’t tell you much more about the plot of the story here. My aim is to share impressions and joys from reading rather than parrot a book jacket. But I hope this method leads you to The Venetian Game–and brings you some smiles as well.