Review: The Venetian Candidate by Philip Gwynne Jones
Nathan Sutherland is living the life, la dolce vita in Venice. The British Honorary Consul spends his time enjoying drinking spritzes with his beloved wife Federica, who clearly adores him, other than for the horrible prog rock he listens to. His cat Gramsci is not so judgmental, as long as he’s fed on a regular basis.
The biggest problem Nathan faces is how to take out the Christmas tree without shedding pine needles everywhere. That is until a phone call about a missing man, which sets in train a slow cavalcade of events as we find out what drove an English academic called Anthony Shawcross, in the final throes of terminal illness, to venture out into the chill of an Italian winter, there to find his death.
Shawcross was trying to find out what happened to his grandfather during the First World War, a secret still actively resonates across many long decades.
The Venetian Candidate is the seventh novel to feature the eternally curious and morally upright representative of Her Majesty’s government and it’s a quiet, gentle mystery.
Yes, there are some fisticuffs and at one point shots ring out but in the main it’s a slow, slow reveal. This is the gentlest of thrillers. But quietly gripping too, as one is taken into the chill rhythms and bleached colours of the time of year.
One of the real pleasures in the novel is the fine, attentive detail in which the sinking city is drawn, from private clubs to ornate palazzi, from cramped, characterful campos, or squares to the funeral islands of the outer Venice lagoons.
We see the relentless gentrification of the place and the plenitude of art treasures in both its churches and in the architecture of the city itself, not to mention the suffocating effect of too many tourists. It’s a city brought pulsingly to life by a Welsh author who has long been a city resident.
Wandering around La Serenissima – the Byzantine name for this extraordinary city – Nathan pauses awhile at the apex of the Accademia Bridge looking out at the January scene on the Grand Canal:
‘Vaporetti and delivery boats made their ways back and forth, and even a few gondoliers were ferrying their visitors around. From my vantage point, I could see a young couple snuggled together against the chill and I almost envied them. Further out, towards the bacino, the church of the Salute was semi-visible in the mist. I looked up at the skies. They were clearing, slowly, and by midday the fog would have burned off and Baldassare Longhena’s great church would again dominate the skyline at this end of the canal.’
It’s a place where a man can suffer real choice anxiety when it comes to selecting arancini, the crispy orange risotto balls which come in a range of fillings – ‘Mozzarella. Ragù. Pistachio and mortadella.’
Nathan finds it hard to choose between one breakfast or two and everything seems to be washed down with spritzes or Negronis. La Dolce Vita indeed.
But there are other, more significant choices to be made, as the Venetian mayoral elections are coming up and Nathan is drawn into the nefarious world of local Italian politics. Hence the candidate in the book’s title.
Whoever wins the election will have to grapple with some of the issues facing the city, from the damage caused by the ginormous cruise ships which follow seaways into the city, to Venice’s depopulation as well as environmental concerns in a world heritage site which is often flooded and more generally sinking.
Where there is a brisk trade in information about rivals and a rather nasty henchman – one, in particular drawn from the ranks of the fanatical football supporters known as the Ultras – enters the frame, along with the occasional war-obsessed fascist and unscrupulous bookseller. Hence the candidate in the book’s title.
Much of the plot of The Venetian Candidate hinges on the existence and disappearance of The Visconti Box, named after the famous Italian director, which contains documents connected with the family of the dead Englishman, Shawcross but the secret is just one of many among the rather wholescale skullduggery caused by arcane voting system and the Italian flair for corruption.
It’s easy to see how readers become hooked on Philip Gwynne Jones’ Venetian novels. They are as comforting as a a glass of hot chocolate to wash down a brioche full of dark chocolatey goop in a bar such as the Motodonso.
In these books, much as we do with Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus in Edinburgh, we enjoy spending time with Nathan Sutherland who is a most affable, music-loving hero but also see a changing city, sense its pulses, seasons and challenges as it drowns in tourists.
And in this latest, we see the dark machinations of the city’s politics. Consider me a convert.
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