Christopher Bollen writes thrillers that are truly literary thrillers. Propulsive yet never prosaic, his plots race forward via text and texture. A Beautiful Crime (Harper/HarperCollins, Jan. 28) transports readers to a world of faded frescoes in moldering Venetian palazzi, along with two erudite men who’ve left New York to seek love and la dolce vita. Embrangled in a scheme of counterfeit antiques and dodgy real estate dealings, Nick Brink and Clay Guillory are gay grifters easy to root for. Bollen lets some big themes swirl—the uneasy overlaps of class, race, sexuality, American provincialism—while the reader spies Nick and Clay, by turns, “out-Ripley” one another. (The author’s often compared to Patricia Highsmith, though in A Beautiful Crime one may detect Graham Greene and Donna Tartt wafting across Venice’s canals.) Bollen is accustomed to sniffing out good stories: having sustained a career as a journalist, he is also a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. This interview took place by phone with Bollen, who was in the Berkshires touching up—what else?—a murder story for that periodical.
How do you feel about being consigned to the genre of literary thriller?
“Consigned” is the right word: I never know what kind of writer I am. I suppose I am a plot person. I don’t buy books for plot—and never read pulpy books—but I think in plot. I love a novel that takes craft seriously but also makes the most of intrigue. As a kid, I was obsessed with murder mysteries. Other kids idolized sports figures or had music posters—I had posters of Agatha Christie movies. (Laughs.) I wanted to be a private investigator and gradually realized that a writer is the closest you can get to that. I was desperate to solve a crime—I probably would have committed one just to solve it!
For A Beautiful Crime I thought about how 20th century literary fiction baked it into our lives that there’s this artificial norm: a heterosexual, suburban and, I guess, white reality. What was exciting about setting this in Venice with two young gay men was that it was closer to the reality I’ve known since I went to college in New York. And part of the excitement about writing a thriller is that anything can happen, including the dispensing of social norms: Maybe the norm is not about suffering on the inside while having dinner with the kids.
In this novel, you out-Highsmith Highsmith by giving us two Ripleys. A canny move, as I was thrown off as to which young man was more ruthless.
I’m glad to hear that. One of the boys ends up being more cautious with other people’s feelings, even ends up the moral compass for the book. Like Nick, I grew up in Ohio, and there’s a level of trust given to Nick that isn’t allowed to Clay, who is black. But we Ohioans can be total shape-shifters while seeming so guileless. There’s that quote from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American: “Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost its bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”
You capture Venice so deftly. Did you feel previous authors leaning over your shoulder?
Venice is my favorite city. I was an intern at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection after college and it never left me. But yes, I resisted writing about it for a while because it’s one of those places that is the setting of so many stories. And Henry James did it so well 100 years ago.
And, of course, Death in Venice—though I get more Fitzgerald than Mann in A Beautiful Crime.
Absolutely! I am cursed by my first reading of Gatsby. I live in a bad shadow of it. It always enters my books even when I don’t mean it to. Fitzgerald captures this tone of people mourning while celebrating, of sorrow shot through the heart of extreme glamour—that’s Venice. So, fortunately, Gatsby resonates especially with the themes of this book. Clay and Nick have these new freedoms but don’t have the same wild independence of my generation. Gay men must now come to terms with the past, what to do with it. Venice, too, has been exploiting former splendors—past glories—but is slowly perishing. Something like the radical bohemianism of gay culture now: We are so good at denying that something is dying until it’s too late.
Because this novel is so well-plotted, I wonder if you make an outline.
Never. My theory is that you are not building a shelf by IKEA, but sometimes I wonder if that schtick is just laziness masking itself as wisdom. (Laughs.) I know that most “mass market” authors use outlines, while so-called literary writers may not. But now, as I get older, I admire stealth and speed. Producing words. I bought this place in the Berkshires thinking I’d be more productive, but I can get distracted—fascinated—by a small animal outside the window. In New York, someone can be brutally murdered next door and I’ll just keep working.
Steven Drukman is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright.