In this series, we invite our Crime Cymru authors to showcase an excerpt from one of their books. This week, Philip Gwynne Jones tempts us with the M word while setting the scene perfectly for the fifth book in the hugely atmospheric Venice-set Nathan Sutherland series.
Well somehow we’ve reached book 5! Nathan Sutherland – honorary British Consul in Venice, and occasional (and accidental) crimefighter – returns this April in “The Venetian Legacy”.
I’d written two ‘wintry’ books in a row – “The Venetian Masquerade” and “Venetian Gothic” – and figured it was time for a break from shadows and fog. This was a book where I wanted the reader to feel the sand beneath their feet and the sun on their back. Prosecco at sunset, with the light shining on the lagoon. And seafood. Quite a lot of seafood, if I’m being honest. Oh, and the occasional bloody murder as well.
I had it in mind to set the book on Pellestrina, the impossibly thin strip of land between the Lido of Venice and Chioggia, lined on one side by the murazzi – the great stone dykes that keep the Adriatic at bay. Part of Venice, and yet not part of it, it’s somewhere where Nathan would be just a little bit out of his comfort zone. Away from the Street of the Assassins and his regular haunts, this time he really would be something of a tourist.
Well, that dealt with time and place. All I needed now was something for him to investigate.
I decided that, finally, it was time to tackle the M-word.
Well, I suppose every writer with an Italian-set series has to tackle this at some point. But the Mafia in Venice? Would people believe that? Or would they, like me, assume that organized crime in La Serenissima was limited to nothing more serious than some dodgy water taxis and fake Murano glass? Cosy crime, if you like?
Well, there was and is a Venetian Mafia called the Mala del Brenta. And they are anything but cosy…
‘The Venetian Legacy’ involved a fair bit of research and, as ever, tough decisions had to be made on exactly what to leave out. I do make reference to actual Venetian mafiosi in the book, and also to historical events. However, I needed to think carefully about exactly how much of this to include. As fascinating as it is, the historical background is there to support the story – it’s not the story itself. As well as that, many of those involved are still alive. Many of them are safely locked up. But not all of them. Why take chances, eh?
And so here we are, in a scene from “The Venetian Legacy”, where one of the pivotal characters – let’s call him ‘The Old Wolf’ – recalls his early years…
“The Venetian Legacy” is published by Constable on April 1st.
The Old Wolf is unhappy. I can tell that from his body language. He touches his face, covers his mouth more than he did at the start of our interview. He seems less willing to make eye contact. He smiles, at times, but I can feel him forcing the expression on to his face. Work as a journalist long enough and you start to recognise things like this. For the first time in our conversation I feel as if I am the one in control.
‘Would you like to tell me about your family?’ I repeat.
He breaths deeply and then nods. He takes a cigarette from the packet in front of him and taps it on the table.
‘I was born in Mestre at the start of the war. This you know. I never knew my father. I imagine that this, too, you know. He never came back from the war, so mamma brought me up alone.’
‘She never spoke about him. Never. Sometimes I would ask questions. When I was little, she would hug me and say that not all boys and girls have a papà. And that would be enough for me. But when I was older, if I asked the same question, well, then she would get angry. Tell me that I wasn’t too old for her to spank my arse. So after a while, I just stopped asking.’
‘She never spoke about him at all?’
‘No. Now, you need to imagine me as a young boy exploring our house. It wasn’t big of course, but it seemed so through the eyes of a child. One day, when she was out at the market, I went down to our cellar. It was full of all kinds of junk, old chests and suitcases. I rummaged through everything. There were photos, of course – so many of them – of nonno and nonna. I found grandfather’s service revolver from the First World War.’ He chuckles. His eyes twinkle and, for a moment, the Old Wolf looks like everyone’s favourite grandfather. ‘I took that and hid it under a loose board in my bedroom. I kept it for years.’
His expression becomes serious and he shakes his head. ‘But there was nothing belonging to my father. And when I say nothing, I mean there was nothing at all.’
‘Why do you think that was?’
He shrugs. ‘Tell me about your father, Brezzi. What did he do in the war?’
I am unable to stop my chest puffing out, just a little. ‘He was a partisan. With the 8th Garibaldi Brigade.’
He sees my reaction and smiles. ‘You must have been very proud of him.’
‘I was. I am.’
I worry, suddenly, that I might have revealed too much. The Old Wolf closes his eyes. Then he sings, under his breath, the words of the old partisan anthem . . .”O partigiano portami via . . . o bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao.”
‘We’re a sentimental people, Brezzi. We all like to imagine that our fathers, our grandfathers were partisans. And that somewhere in our basement is a chest full of good memories. But, of course, they can’t all have been partisans. And those memories might not necessarily be good ones…’
To discover the other books in the Nathan Sutherland series, follow the link here to Phil’s Amazon page
While you’re here, don’t forget the amazing new Gŵyl CRIME CYMRU Festival, Wales’ first ever international crime fiction festival, which will be making its home in Aberystwyth over the early May bank holiday weekend. We’ll be online in 2021, and then in person in 2022 – from 30th April to 2nd May 2022. If you have a 5 year diary then add in we’re online in 2023, in person in 2024. There’s a pattern, we’ve profiled it. For updates, follow us on Twitter at @GwylCrimeFest