André Aciman meets Patricia Highsmith in this satisfying exercise in literary crime.
“No mythical city should be judged by its airport.” So we read as 25-year-old Nicholas Brink, an Ohioan by way of New York, lands in Venice in a “Gobi of concrete.” Nick is cut out for finer things, and he has come to Venice to take his part in a con game of his own devising. Bollen (The Destroyers, 2017, etc.) skillfully lets the details out bit by bit: We learn on one page that he has a boyfriend, Clay Guillory, on another that Clay is an Italian speaker who knows Venice well, on still another that Clay is an African American who, Nick hopes, will find the city of Othello less ethnically fraught than a white America that sees Clay “as a blur of black skin.” The crime is delicious, a sale of counterfeit antiques to an American expat who has more money than he knows what to do with. As must happen in stories of this sort, mistakes are made, and Nick, who presents himself as the affable good guy, gets greedy—and, Clay protests, “Getting greedy is what will get us into trouble.” Instead of selling a bunch of old silver and such, Nick wants to sell a whole palazzo that only partly belongs to Clay by virtue of a friendship with a now-deceased bohemian artist—only partly, the rest being tied up in a family squabble of epically Venetian proportions. Cons turn into countercons as a private investigator–cum-strongman turns up, and when that happens, Bollen’s relatively gentle game of cat and mouse takes a bloody turn that’s not entirely unexpected. Clay’s warning to Nick turns out to be exactly right, as Nick sheds any vestigial boyishness in the course of a would-be swindle that goes exactly wrong.
Fans of crime fiction will delight in this marriage of knowing aestheticism and old-fashioned mayhem.