Philip Gwynne Jones invites us to Venice (but definitely not by cruise ship), and it’s not all sunshine and Canaletto.
I’m an accidental novelist. In fact, when a water taxi deposited Caroline and myself in a chilly Campo San Barnaba in March 2012, burdened with ten suitcases but nothing so conventional as a fixed abode or place of work, I wasn’t any sort of writer at all. I was a computer programmer. Or, to be more precise, I was an unsuccessful computer programmer, recently made redundant by one of those banks that had developed the annoying habit of nearly sliding out of business.
Having failed at sensible jobs we decided, in middle-age, to do something not very sensible at all. We sold our flat, cashed in whatever savings we had and moved to Venice to teach English. I certainly had no intention of writing a novel. But Venice generates stories. There is something about the city that just makes you want to write.
I would walk the foggy streets at night, sometimes choosing the most obscure way home, sometimes deliberately getting lost. Walking through a city which must be one of the safest in the world but where the narrow, labyrinthine calli make one imagine that someone, or something, could be lurking around every corner with bad intent. Where the shade of Du Maurier’s murderous cloaked figure never seems far away, and every shadowy form seems to have stepped out of a classic Italian giallo.
The city in which it would be impossible to set a high-speed chase scene is also the city where one could conceivably drown in the street during acqua alta. And those street names : The Field of the Dead. The Street of the Assassins. Places that simply demanded to be written about.
I taught English to art restorers and architects. I taught a police officer from the Guardia di Finanza who worked in the art crime department and who seemed unperturbed when I tried to turn every lesson into a discussion on how one might go about stealing valuable works. And then there was the Italian businessman who also acted as an Honorary Consul, where each lesson would turn into a firefighting activity and carefully-crafted lesson plans would be abandoned as I tried to help with whatever new crisis he happened to be facing that week.
So one day I sat down, and started to write. About a game of art theft, and a prayer book illustrated by a Venetian master. About Nathan Sutherland – the British Honorary Consul and accidental crime-fighter – his unfriendly cat, and refusing an offer that couldn’t be refused.
His office, of course, is on the Street of the Assassins…
Philip’s latest book, The Venetian Masquerade, is available now.