Guardians of the literary canon, rejoice. Stansberry (Naked Moon, 2010, etc.), borrowing freely from John Webster’s eponymous 1612 tragedy, proves that there’s plenty of life and death and nastiness in the classics.
Even though she’s married to fading writer Frank Paris, Vittoria knows that she’s really Vicki Wilson from Texas and that her deepest loyalty is to her brother, Johnny, who’s been there for her from childhood, when he dealt decisively with the unwanted attention she got from other boys. It’s through Johnny that Vicki meets Paolo Orsini, a well-connected Italian senator. Paolo’s married, Vicki’s married, but what are trifling obstacles like spouses to their grand passion? Stansberry’s twist on this hallowed formula is to filter every person and incident through the hazy medium of Vicki’s narration, which never seems quite focused on even the most forbidden fruit, perfectly reflecting the miasmal haze of a social landscape peopled by interchangeable paparazzi, fixers, political investigators, bodyguards, hangers-on, and Cardinal Whiting, Frank’s uncle, who seems no more good or real than anyone else. Soon enough, Isabella Orsini is dead under circumstances that seem to strike no one as suspicious; when Frank is killed in a riding accident, the only ones who register any reaction are the chorus who write headlines for gossip magazines. Less poetically but more insidiously than his dramatic model, Stansberry shows corruption so deeply ensconced in his heroine and her culture that it’s impossible to imagine it ever being rooted out.
Perhaps the most surprising feature of this tour de force is its pervasive links to both Jacobean tragedy and contemporary Mediterranean noir. Who knew?