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.

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