The Girl from Venice

Title:                      The Girl from Venice

Author:                Martin Cruz Smith

Smith, Martin Cruz (2016). The Girl from Venice. New York: Simon and Schuster

LCCN:    2016017923

PS3569.M5377 G57 2016


  • “The highly anticipated new standalone novel from Martin Cruz Smith, whom The Washington Post has declared “that uncommon phenomenon: a popular and well-regarded crime novelist who is also a writer of real distinction,” The Girl from Venice is a suspenseful World War II love story set against the beauty, mystery, and danger of occupied Venice. Venice, 1945. The war may be waning, but the city known as La Serenissima is still occupied and the people of Italy fear the power of the Third Reich. One night, under a canopy of stars, a fisherman named Cenzo comes across a young woman’s body floating in the lagoon and soon discovers that she is still alive and in trouble. Born to a wealthy Jewish family, Giulia is on the run from the Wehrmacht SS. Cenzo chooses to protect Giulia rather than hand her over to the Nazis. This act of kindness leads them into the world of Partisans, random executions, the arts of forgery and high explosives, Mussolini’s broken promises, the black market and gold, and, everywhere, the enigmatic maze of the Venice Lagoon. The Girl from Venice is a thriller, a mystery, and a retelling of Italian history that will take your breath away. Most of all it is a love story”– Provided by publisher.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      June 23, 2017

Review by Dennis Drabelle[1]

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[2] (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.

[1] Dennis Drabelle, “Martin Cruz Smith brings us wartime Italy in Girl from Venice,” (October 16, 2016), Dennis Drabelle is a former mysteries editor of Book World.

[2] Smith, Martin Cruz (1981). Gorky Park. New York: Random House


Foreign Correspondent

Title:                      Foreign Correspondent

Author:                Alan Furst

Furst, Alan (2006). The Foreign Correspondent: A Novel. New York: Random House

LCCN:    2006040417

PS3556.U76 F67 2006


Date Posted:      January 8, 2017

Review by Alex Berenson[1]

Like his characters, Alan Furst is a consummate professional, a veteran of the spy-writing business who knows the darkest recesses of Paris and Berlin. He and his creations communicate with glances, leave much unsaid, whisper when they must speak at all.

In Furst’s novel, The Foreign Correspondent, the time is 1939, the place Europe, with conflagration approaching as inevitably as a bomb falling from a Stuka. “There will surely be war,” Carlo Weisz, a Reuters reporter who is the correspondent of the title, thinks after attending the signing of the “pact of steel” between Hitler and Mussolini at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. “The people in the street would demand it, would kill relentlessly and, in time, would have to be killed. These children would not surrender.”

The killing has not yet begun, of course, but Weisz’s concerns about fascism are more than theoretical. An Italian, but no fan of Mussolini, he lives in exile in Paris. There he and other Italian émigrés put together Liberazione, an underground Italian newspaper that has attracted the attention of the OVRA, Mussolini’s secret police.

In the novel’s delicious opening scene, OVRA operatives murder Enrico Bottini, Liberazione’s editor, during his weekly tryst with the wife of a French politician. Liberazione must go on, so Arturo Salamone, a leader of the émigrés, asks Weisz to fill the vacancy. Weisz accepts, unhappily: “Eager barely says it,” he tells Salamone, deflecting his fear with sarcasm.

By rights, Weisz is now in mortal danger, and much of the rest of the novel concerns the cat-and-mouse game played by the émigrés and the secret police. Yet Weisz hardly seems terrified, and why should he be? Furst never bothers to make the OVRA much more than an acronym. Bottini’s murder is overseen by a man named Ettore, an unlovely OVRA commander who during World War I “served with distinction—officially recognized—in the purchasing office of the Ministry of War, in Rome.” A suitable villain. But after the opening Ettore disappears, turning up just once more.

Meanwhile, Weisz scrapes along in Paris, the archetypal foreign correspondent, single, middle-aged and lonely, watching the world through a smoked-glass window. The love of his life, the chestnut-haired Christa Zameny, has married a German aristocrat and lives in Berlin, forever lost. Or maybe not. For when Reuters sends Weisz to Berlin on a two-week assignment, he and Christa fall together so quickly and easily that the reader wonders why they would ever have allowed themselves to be apart.

Christa, whose hatred of fascism is even stronger than Weisz’s (never mind her diamond-studded swastika), has put herself in danger by helping the German resistance. Her peril forces Weisz closer to the British intelligence service, which has its own plans for him and Liberazione. Yes, the British want to increase Liberazione’s 2,000-copy print run to 20,000. Eventually, they ask Weisz for a favor, and he asks one of them in return.

Even by the standards of literary fiction, this is drama with a small “d.” But Furst cannot be blamed for preferring cafes to grenades; that’s his choice, and not every spy story needs to end with the hero scratching his head as he tries to figure out whether to cut the red wire or the green. The genre is infinitely flexible. Spying is the place where the crushing weight of politics and the thin reed of conscience meet, the place where governments, with their necessary amorality, bend and sometimes break the men and women who serve their ends. Graham Greene and John le Carré, the genre’s masters, rendered this complexity in heartbreaking detail.

Furst’s devotees, and he has many, like to compare him to Greene and le Carré. Furst surely knows his territory, and he shows his writing chops from the novel’s first sentence: “In Paris, the last days of autumn; a gray, troubled sky at daybreak, the fall of twilight at noon. . . .”

But beautiful writing alone does not make a novel great. The Foreign Correspondent lacks the moral depth, the anguish, that Greene and le Carré provide. No one in this novel, and especially not Weisz, ever seems close to despair, to falling in love with the wrong woman, to getting drunk and fighting, or even shouting, in the street. Weisz is more than two-dimensional, but he is not quite real either. He seems a wax figure, perfectly constructed, but without the grubby breath of life. He is most certainly not engagé, to use the word that Greene helped make famous in The Quiet American[2] and that Furst lifts here, presumably in homage.

And so this time around Furst has produced a curiously inert book that is missing both the percussive drive of more commercial spy novels and the fully realized characters of le Carré and Greene. It is an honest effort—Furst is too good a writer and too professional to offer anything less—and it has its pleasures, but they are served dutifully and without great vigor. No one will ask for a second helping of Carlo Weisz.

[1] Alex Berenson, Sunday Book Review, “Mussolini’s Enemies,” The New York Times (June 18, 2006) Alex Berenson, a reporter at The Times, is the author of a novel, The Faithful Spy [Berenson, Alex (2006). The Faithful Spy. New York: Random House]

[2] Greene, Graham (1955, 2004). The Quiet American. New York : Penguin Books