Venice Noir, edited by Maxim Jakubowski

Originally published in 2012

From the introduction by Maxim Jakubowski:

It’s one of the most famous cities in the world. Immortalized by writers throughout the years, frozen in amber by film and photography, the picturesque survivor of a wild history whose centuries encompass splendor, decay, pestilence, beauty, and never-ending wonders. A city built on water, whose geographical position once saw it rule the world and form a vital crossing point between West and East. A city of merchants, artists, glamour, abject poverty, philosophers, corrupt nobles, refugees, courtesans, and unforgettable lovers, buffeted by the tides of wars, a unique place whose architecture is a subtle palette reflecting the successive waves of settlers, invaders, religions, and short-term rulers . . .

Change in this most curious of cities is something almost imperceptible and invisible to the naked eye. Walking just a few minutes away from the Rialto Bridge, for instance, and losing yourself in backstreets, where the canals and small connecting bridges leave just enough space to pass along the buildings without falling into the water, it’s as if you are stepping into a past century altogether, with no indication whatsoever of modernity. You wade through a labyrinth of stone, water, and wrought-iron bridges, and after dark feel part of another world where electricity isn’t yet invented, a most unsettle feeling nothing can prepare you for . . .”

I have written about a few of the Akashic Noir series on this blog before but Venice Noir marks the first time I have read a volume about a city that I have actually visited myself. While that was a number of years ago (in the mid-nineties), I have some pretty clear memories of that trip and of spending time in the city. Thankfully my experiences were far more positive than those encountered by those visiting the city in most of these stories.

This volume, edited by Maxim Jakubowski, makes the possibly controversial choice to include a number of writers who hail from outside Italy. This was a conscious choice on the part of the editor who suggests in his introduction that it reflects his feeling that ‘Venice belongs to the world’ and it is certainly an interesting one, allowing the collection to see the city both through the eyes of its yearlong inhabitants and those visiting. The contrast between those perspectives and the way the city is seen is one of the most interesting aspects of the collection and, to my surprise, is presented in a largely consistent manner between the various stories.

As I have noted with some of the other collections, the Akashic range adopts a rather broad interpretation of noir allowing for gritty crime stories but also stories that focus on it as an attitude or stylistic choice. This collection is no exception, offering up a range of approaches and styles. There are, for instance, two rather quirky stories told from the perspectives of the city’s biggest population – its rats. While there are some common elements, it is striking how different those two stories are from one another in some of their other features.

Some of the offerings are more serious such as the opening tale, Cloudy Water, which explores a rather unusual criminal enterprise that seems quite specific to its setting. Many of the other stories in the collection similarly emerge from aspects of their setting, making for a rather distinctive collection.

The general standard of writing in the collection is very high though there are several stories that had more limited appeal for me personally either based on characterization or their development of their themes. An example of the latter would be Francesco Ferracin’s The Comedy is Over which is certainly effective in its examination of how a woman’s traumatic experience leads her to seek revenge or Desdemona Undicesima by Isabella Santacroce which has an almost hypnotic quality as the narrator repeatedly revisits moments and ideas in a loop.

More stories hit than miss though and when it gets it right, the results can be really compelling. Perhaps my favorite of the stories is Commissario Clelia Vinci by Barbara Baraldi. This story, which is one of two told from the perspective of a law enforcement officer, is one of the longer efforts and benefits from the time that can be given to exploring the character’s backstory while she works on a difficult murder case. I was particularly struck by the idea that the story explores that the actions of law enforcement can have unintended consequences and I felt that the journey she goes on here was quite powerful.

The other one I really liked was Signor Gauke’s Tongue, which is one of the stories that most strongly features the city as a location. While some aspects of that story could arguably occur anywhere, Mike Hodges peppers their story with references to buildings and their history as well as some of the more notable figures associated with the city. I enjoyed discovering the secrets that story’s protagonist was holding and learning the significance of its title.

The balance of styles, between the humorous and the more serious, is very good. While the stories are grouped together along common themes I never felt that it was repeating itself as I have occasionally with some of the other entries in this series. I appreciate that intention to offer variety and while not every story is a winner, all are readable and interesting.

The Verdict: A very solid and varied collection of stories, most of which utilize its distinctive setting well.

Part I. Among the Venetians

Cloudy Water by Matteo Righetto, translated by Judith Forshaw

The collection opens with this rather ominous offering in which a man who has got rich quick on a criminal enterprise decides that he will give it up after one last score. The structure of this story is not unexpected, particularly for those well versed in this flavor of crime fiction, but what interested me most here was the fascinating criminal enterprise which is one of the more unusual I’ve encountered.

The story does an excellent job of exploring the city’s chief feature, its waterways, and has some splendid action towards its conclusion. While it doesn’t necessarily challenge the reader’s expectations, it gets the collection off to a very solid start with action that feels properly borne from its setting.

The Comedy is Over by Francesco Ferracin, translated by Judith Forshaw

I was less enamored of the second story in the collection, though I cannot deny its effectiveness.

This is the story of a woman whose worldview dramatically changes following an assault where she is left for dead. Her response is to significantly change her personality, becoming colder and more calculating and plotting murderous revenge against those that hurt her.

As a character study of how we respond to trauma it can be quite effective, even if this is an obviously extreme response, and it captures that character’s voice very effectively. For me however it was a little too effective and I was never comfortable inhabiting that character’s head.

Commissario Clelia Vinci by Barbara Baraldi, translated by Judith Forshaw

This is one of the more interesting and complex stories within the collection, in part because of the choice to focus on a character from within the law enforcement community – the titular Commissario Clelia Vinci. In a relatively small number of pages Baraldi manages to create a complex, dimensional character and take them on a journey as they try to solve a murder case and find themselves confronting questions of justice and parenthood. The case has multiple aspects but what interests most is the action around the case; particularly the exploration of how the interventions of the police affect the lives of those involved.

It’s an excellent read that, for me, is one of the highlights of this whole collection.

Little Sister by Francesca Mazzucato, translated by Judith Forshaw

The final story in the book’s first part is another example of an uncomfortable read – at least for this reader.

This story’s narrator is a socially-isolated woman who has moved to Venice where she works writing copy for online publications. She has a strong revulsion at any strong smells or odors and over the course of this tale we learn both its origins and also what it has caused her to do.

In brief passages we experience her disturbed thoughts, getting a clearer sense of exactly who she is. Mazzucato conveys her instability quite effectively, creating for quite an uncomfortable reading experience at times. As a character study it works quite well but it lacks a sense of narrative – making it seem a little aimless.

Part II. Shadows of the Past

Lido Winter by Maxim Jakubowski

Jonathan returns to Venice where he has an encounter with a mysterious blonde woman he meets while boarding the vaporetto (the public waterbuses). As they walk together he reflects on his life to that point and some of his past experiences which this reminds him of.

The story captures Venice as a space well, reflecting on the city’s interesting past and some of its unique features. Another character-driven piece, the The tone of the work, which could be described as erotica, didn’t grab me but I thought some of the imagery and ideas found in its conclusion were effective.

Pantegana by Michelle Lovric

Amazingly this isn’t my first short story written with a rat as a protagonist. That story, which was part of Patricia Highsmith’s The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder, was also set in Venice but it was perhaps the one I liked least in that collection. I’m happy to say that this was much more successful for me.

At the start of this story we learn that the story’s narrator has indirectly caused someone’s death when they bit them on the foot. We then learn more of the circumstances of that death and see the consequences of that murder for both the rat and the humans involved.

It’s a really clever read that does a fantastic job of exploring human lives from a rat’s perspective. The rat’s understanding of exactly what has happened will differ from the reader though it is fascinating to learn some of the background to that event. Perhaps my favorite thing about the story though is its ending – it’s dark, sure, but it’s also arguably the happiest ending in a collection of stories where that doesn’t happen much (the strongest contender would be the book’s other rat story, more on which in a moment…).

Desdemona Undicesima by Isabella Santacroce, translated by Judith Forshaw

This fevered, hypnotic tale tries to pull the reader into the story and associate them with the choices made by its protagonist, Desdemona, during a stay in Venice. The style, in which we repeatedly return to the same events, is simultaneously illuminating and frustrating – it captures the character’s fractured psychological state but it also means that if the reader anticipates some details early, that it can feel rather repetitive.

One of the more disturbing stories in the collection, I didn’t find it a particularly enjoyable read and felt frustrated by that repetition but I do commend its strong development of theme.

Part III. Tourists and Other Troubled Folk

Venice Aphrodisiac by Peter James

Well, this is interesting. A couple come to Venice first to have an affair, then return each year after they are married, less happy each time as they age and tire of each other.

One of the more directly criminous stories in the collection, James does a fine job of building up each character and carefully revealing how that breakdown has occurred and what they have in mind as a resolution for their problems. At times it is quite darkly comedic but this story also feels narratively tight with its action unfolding at a steady pace as it builds to its conclusion. That arguably verges on the absurd, reinforcing my sense that this is a story with a noir sentiment told in a decidedly non-noir way, but I feel that there is a place for that in this collection.

Drifter by Emily St. John Mantel

Following the death of her husband, an American widow decides she does not want to remain near their home. She opts instead to fly to Europe where she begins to drift across the continent aimlessly on their remaining savings. When those are almost completely out she travels to Venice where she encounters someone who offers her a quick way to make some cash.

Much of the action in this story takes place in other European countries but as it is her final destination on her aimless journey, the passages set in Venice feel like its focus. Mantel crafts an effective study of grief, painting an interesting picture of this woman and her life. There are some criminous elements that readers will see coming and these are handled pretty effectively but my overall impression was of a story that, while successful, is unlikely to stay with me as long as some of its messier counterparts.

Rendezvous by Tony Cartano, translated by Maxim Jakubowski

After starting an affair with the young wife of one of the world’s most important gallery owners, a man is surprised to find that man on the same flight as him. As he becomes increasingly suspicious that he is being followed he starts to try to evade him.

This is one of the shortest works in the collection and is perhaps another example of a rather straightforward tale, but it’s hard not to admire its snappy pacing. Cartano tells his story well, not only creating an engaging scenario but also paying it off well with a fitting conclusion. It’s a good read with my only knock on it being that it is probably the story here which feels least closely tied to its setting with all of its characters being outsiders.

Signor Gauke’s Tongue by Mike Hodges

The next offering is another of my favorites from the collection. This one features a man arriving in Venice in somewhat mysterious circumstances. What those are I don’t want to share – a big part of the enjoyment here is in piecing together the clues to work out who he is and why he is there – but I will share that I think this does a great job of exploring its setting and making it relevant to the story’s themes. I found it to be a really engaging read and was really interested in learning more about this man and where his story would lead.

Part IV. An Imperfect Present

Tourists for Supper by Maria Tronca, translated by Judith Forshaw

The second of the two stories in this collection that feature rat protagonists introduces us to Milly, a pregnant rat who stumbles upon a rotten stair and tumbles down into a flooded basement filled with other rats. There she learns of a horror taking place within that building and devises a plan to escape.

Like Pantegana, this tale presents an interesting rats-eye view of Venice, imagining how the world might seem to small creatures. It is a surprisingly sympathetic work, particularly given the rather grim nature of the story, and plays almost as cutesy at moments before reminding us just how dark the scenario devised is.

It’s an effective story, though this reader was rendered quite queasy by a few of the more grotesque moments along the way. Still, it’s also one of the best examples of a story that feels totally bound to its setting with the imagery of a crumbling palazzo and city around it.

Laguna Blues by Michael Gregorio

Laguna Blues is another one of those stories that feels more like a rumination on an idea or theme than a story driven by its narrative. It is told from the perspective of a police officer and focuses on two moments in his life – the first is the case of a naked man found in the mud, the other his experiences during a period of convalescence.

This story is seeped in its location, both in terms of the culture it presents and also the geography and landscape of Venice. You get to know the handful of characters really well in a relatively small number of pages. The interest here lay in exploring the connections between those two moments and working out why Gregorio pairs these two moments together in the way he does. It made for an intriguing read and while its imagery and incidents may not be as extreme or as colorful as some of the other stories in this collection, I think it is likely to be one of the stories I remember most when thinking back on it.

A Closed Book by Mary Hoffman

A gondolier tells a foreign writer keen to discover the ‘real Venice’ embellished stories about some of the crimes that have taken place in the city. When she is found dead shortly afterwards he is suspected of her murder causing his fellow gondoliers to band together to try to solve the crime.

In a way it’s a pity that this was positioned as the last story in the collection as, while it is quite readable and features some unexpected twists and turns, it feels like it puts more emphasis on the character of the foreigner and their story than the city itself. I did really like the idea of the gondoliers coming together to support one of their own and enjoyed following their investigation overall.

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