The publicity sheet for Martin Cruz Smith’s engaging new novel boasts that the author “does extensive research for all of his books,” including in this case “four trips to Italy.” Extensive but not always freewheeling. At the outset of his career, Smith dazzled Sovietologists by parlaying his background reading and one brief visit to Russia into “Gorky Park” (1981), which was praised for its accurate insights into the heart of the Soviet police state.
Smith has since written seven more novels featuring the hero of “Gorky Park,” Arkady Renko, a Russian cop with a conscience. “The Girl From Venice,” however, is a non-Renko tale with a Western European setting. Two aspects of the new novel obviously drew upon Smith’s dogged research: the life of a fisherman in the Venetian backwaters; and conditions in Italy generally during early 1945, when Benito Mussolini continued to strut and declaim in the northern Italian town of Salo, headquarters of the Nazi puppet state that was all that remained of Il Duce’s empire.
Smith conjures the time and place with a generous dose of what the novelist Evan Connell called “luminous details.” The ubiquity of polenta, for one. Today it’s become something of a delicacy, at least in the United States, but during the war it was an all-too-familiar Italian staple. We learn how fascist propagandists try to poison Italian minds against invading soldiers: “through posters of lecherous Americans with virginal Italian women.” And Smith sketches the sociological complexity of Venice and its environs: “She was from Venice and he was from Pellestrina, which was like saying they were not only from opposite sides of the lagoon but from different worlds. When she spoke she had an elegantly lazy Venetian accent. When he spoke, consonants disappeared.”
“She” is Giulia Silber, a young Jewish woman whom our fisherman, Cenzo (short for Innocenzo) Vianello, pulls out of the water while plying his trade one night. At first she seems to have drowned, but he soon discovers that she is very much alive. Her wealthy and well-connected father — “no Jews were more assimilated into Italian society than the Silbers” — had saved himself and his family by cooperating with the fascists. At this point in the war, with the Allies inexorably seizing Italian territory, the Silbers should have been safe, especially since they’d gone into hiding. But someone betrayed them, Giulia alone has survived, and Cenzo decides to protect her. You won’t be surprised when the consonant-dropping fisherman and the heiress with the lazy accent fall in love along the way.
Cenzo’s task is complicated by the enraging presence of his brother Giorgio, a war hero turned movie star turned fascist spokesman. More to the point, Giorgio recently made Cenzo a cuckold, stealing Cenzo’s wife by promising to make her a movie star — a betrayal that led to the smitten woman’s death. The brothers’ rivalry forms a skillfully interwoven subplot to the main action.
Some of the novel’s most piquant scenes center on the behavior of Mussolini and his hangers-on as their world collapses. Pretense, denial, wishful thinking — these are among the stages in the downfall of a duce. Smith tantalizes us with brief glimpses of Mussolini himself, who among other last-minute vexations must choose what to take with him in the small plane dispatched to spirit him away from hemmed-in Salo: his wife, his mistress or a stack of gold bars.
Smith can write evocatively, as in this description of one of his Nazi villains: “There was no avoiding the colonel’s gaze. One side of the man’s face was ruined and gray and his ear was cut to a stub, but his eyes were bright blue and the impression he gave was of a noble bust that had fallen and been chipped but was still imposing.”
At times, though, Smith seems to let up on the pedal when he should be pressing down — Mussolini’s ignominious death, for example, takes place offstage. Go ahead and manipulate me a bit more, this reader wanted to signal the author.
For the most part, though, Smith makes fine use of his material, including the fishing lore, which Cenzo puts to memorable use at the novel’s climax. “The Girl From Venice” may not be the most heart-pounding thriller of the year, but its vivid treatments of a timeless trade and certain little-known aspects of World War II make it well worth your time.
Dennis Drabelle is a former mysteries editor of Book World.
By Martin Cruz Smith
Simon & Schuster. 308 pp. $27