The Girl From Venice

Clark Gable had quite the ego but Carole Lombard had the cure. She was married to her fellow movie star at the peak of both mutual fame; if the bizarre power coupling of today had existed then they would have been known as Gambard or Lomble. In any event, when the fans were too fawning or the press too loving and Gable started to puff himself up with what the Irish call notions, Lombard would bring him down for a safe landing by saying with innocent satire, ‘Not bad for the guy who made Parnell.’

Parnell was a truly memorable flop and gets frequent mentions in lists of worst movies of all time. Gable played the nineteenth-century parliamentarian Charles Stewart Parnell, for whom Dublin’s central square is named. The part of the poetic, passionate fighter for social justice couldn’t be farther removed from Gable’s usual film persona of winking macho playboy if he was asked to play it underwater in hockey skates. At least he didn’t attempt an Irish accent or he might have put silent pictures back in business.

But, well, you know at least he gave this whole ‘expand your range thing’ a shot and there is honour in that. It happens to the best of people with the best of intentions – Churchill and the Dardanelles, Frank Sinatra’s Trilogy album, whatever the hell it is that DC Entertainment has done to Superman – all failures at some or many levels. Yet as Samuel Beckett said, ‘Fail. Next time fail better.’

Now I don’t think that The Girl from Venice is going to do any lasting harm to Martin Cruz Smith’s reputation, his Arkady Renko crime novels beginning with the near-classic Gorky Park are so good and so popular that Smith is certainly allowed a little indulgence. After writing about Russians for the better part of thirty years, who wouldn’t like a change of pace, metaphorically take an Italian vacation, even if it is right at the very tail end of World War Two?

The oddest thing about The Girl from Venice though is that despite it being Smith’s twenty-ninth (!) book, you’d just about swear this is a debut novel as it shows all the hallmarks of one. Male writers in particular leave fingerprints all over their first books. Let’s take them in order and call the result a review shall we?

“‘The hands tell the true story of a person’s occupation,’ the colonel said. ‘These are the hands of a fisherman. What’s your name?'”

First and foremost the central character must be somewhat down-at-heel, befitting the writer’s usual impoverishment, yet he is an honest soul and loved by all. Oh, and he usually gets a highly ‘meaningful’ name. In The Girl from Venice we meet twenty-eight year old Innocenzo ‘Cenzo’ Vianello, once in the Italian Air Force during the Abyssinian campaign and now in 1945 a peaceful widowed fisherman plying his trade in the lagoons and marshes around Venice. As to why he was able to leave the military while World War Two was going on is not really explained.

That’s the second sign of a debut – a combination of too much and too little plot all at once. The Girl from Venice starts brilliantly, as late one night Cenzo pulls the floating body of an eighteen year old girl out of the lagoon, there’s an encounter with a German gunboat, and the girl disappears for she is actually still alive! From there, however, plot threads come loose freely, dangle and are clipped aside like a bowdy old sweater.

I have an intuition that I’ll dare to advance as a theory whereby it certainly feels like Martin Cruz Smith’s instincts were to write The Girl from Venice as an unsolved death crime novel, but he kept reminding himself that this time he wanted to write something other than a crime novel. And so, everything about the death of Cenzo’s wife Gina, who had run off with his elder brother Giorgio the Italian film star and Fascist collaborator, feels like a mystery. We’re even handed a major plot indicator when, after Giorgio swears he was far away from where she died (an Allied bomb falls on the film set, killing all witnesses), we later see the dailies from that fateful day and Giorgio was there with Gina! But this isn’t a crime novel, so enough said about that.

There is much business made of Giulia, the eighteen year-old swimmer being somehow a key witness to a failed attempt at a peace treaty negotiated by Jewish intellectuals including her late father and a sensible German officer. Yet the peace process and its suggestion of surrender is so very far removed from any decision-maker it may as well be a bit of random conversation spun out over a second bottle of cafe wine.

Then of course the debut novelist must have his hero be to women what magnetic letters are to refrigerator doors. You don’t need all the details as at its core  The Venice Girl  can be quite fun and I am not the font of all wisdom, so why spoil it for you? The female characters though never come to life; they proclaim rather than speak.

What’s good about this novel? Well, Smith plays second to none in crafting magnificent, atmospheric set pieces. The fishing scenes – excellent. The attempt at rescuing a young German soldier after a bombing – brilliant. A hazardous flight in a bullet-riddled Stork aircraft – exciting. That same plane landing in a jovial cafe owner’s back garden and defying at least two of Newton’s laws of thermodynamics … yeah that one isn’t quite so good.

The Girl from Venice will make a fine motion picture script someday after a screenwriter trims away the excess and resolves the plot(s) that remain. As well, if this really had been a debut novel, I’d be quite excited about its author. But as it stands, well, we get to read how Martin Cruz Smith spends his recreation time in writing.

Be seeing you.