A Beautiful Crime is a tantalisingly suspenseful part thriller part romance, one that brilliantly captures the landscape, aesthetics, and politics of Venice.
“The love of the city had killed its people. Quite simply, Venice had been visited to death.”
The opening of the novel has a terrific hook. We know that someone at some point is going to die. But who? And how?
“When you see an opportunity, take it. You can brood over the ethics later.”
Vaguely reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley but starring two much more sympathetic, and empathetic, protagonists, A Beautiful Crime follows a tense cat-and-mouse game in which readers are never sure who is deceiving who.
Nick is a twenty-five year old from Ohio whose move to New York didn’t exactly result in a clearer idea of who he is or what he wants to do. His older boyfriend doesn’t seem to understand Nick’s restlessness. When Nick meets Clay, who is just two years older than him and from New York, sparks fly.
In spite of their different backgrounds, they fall hard and fast for each other. Clay, rumoured to have murdered his best friend after having tricked him into making him his heir, needs a lot of money and fast. Together they decide that the easiest way to get so much money is to con someone who has more money than sense. It just so happens that the person Clay hates most in the world fits the bill.
In order for their plan to succeed they go to Venice since it is where Richard Forsyth West, aka their mark, is currently staying.
Christopher Bollen maintains a taut tension throughout the course of his narrative. Readers, alongside Nick and Clay, will fear that some hitch might reveal and ruin their plans. What may appear as simple conversations will have you sitting on the edge of your seat. And while we know that objectively what Nick and Clay are doing is wrong, we are still rooting for them to succeed.
Time and time again, in both New York and Venice, Nick and Clay wrestle with their morals as well as their greed, desire, love, and any personal vendettas they may or may not harbour.
Bollen’s writing style presents us with some breathtaking and insightful descriptions of Venice. As a former resident of the comune of Venice I am perhaps a bit too critical when I read novels that feature this city. So, I’m happy to say, or write, that Bollen’s depiction of this city is truly true to life. He really does render its beauty and incongruities, providing an interesting commentary on Venice and its inhabitants, of its fatal dependency on tourism, and of the way it is perceived by the rest of the world.
Although both Nick and Clay view Venice through the eyes of an outsider, the Venetians we encounter along the way, from Daniela to Battista, give us an insight of the ‘real’ Venice.
“What would Venice be like without any Venetians living in it? There were only fifty-three thousand of these rare humans left, and the number was shrinking by a thousand each year.”
Venice is much more than the glamorous backdrop to Nick and Clay con as in many ways it plays a central role in the story. It is a city or romance and of ruin. It fills Nick and Clay with equal parts awe and melancholy. The dizzying spell it casts on those who live there is clear. There were moments in which Bollen’s portrayal of Venice brought to mind Thomas Mann’s in Death in Venice. In both of these works Venice appears as a labyrinthine and suggestive city one that might very well bring the worst out of people.
“Nick was hallucinating. Hew was mistaking marble ballrooms and gilt facades and velvet-upholstered gondolas for real life. People went mad in Venice because it lacked the reality check of poverty and ugliness and ordinary struggles. ”
Alongside this high-stakes con we read of Nick and Clay’s relationship. Part of me wanted to see more of them together but in order for their plan to succeed it is vital they are not seen together, so it made sense that they didn’t get share many scenes. Their feelings for one another add a moving note to the story.
Both the secondary characters and the ones who had only small cameos were nuanced and fully fleshed out. At times it was difficult to discern whether someone’s intentions were good or bad which made the story all the more compelling.
“These monsters, Nick thought, and at the same exact moment, These wonderful people.”
Bollen does a terrific job in rendering the ‘artsy’ community of Venice and of giving us an amusing impression of the ‘inglese italianato’ (or perhaps in this case the Americano italianato/the Italianised American) those types of art and cultural enthusiasts who like to play at being intellectual.
I also appreciated the novel’s engagement with issues such as racism (Clay is black), class, and privilege. Wealth, youth, and beauty also make their way into Bollen’s narrative. Both Nick and Clay have to confront their own desire for wealth and of what they would be willing to do for their own safety.
I only spotted two mistakes in Bollon’s Italian which is so refreshing! Usually books set in Italy by non-Italian writers are not only riddled with clichés but with easily avoided mistakes (such as papa instead of papà). Bollon not only captures Venice but he also mentions the Venice-Mestre dynamic.
Bollon’s engaging prose offers plenty of amusing descriptions (“the silent brag of an attractive companion”), easily renders a beautiful landscape, and provides thoughtful character studies.
A Beautiful Crime is an exhilarating novel that will have you flipping pages like there’s no tomorrow. In spite of its dark moments and of the unease the pervades most of its scenes, Bollen’s narrative maintains a beautiful momentum. Through striking depictions of love, friendship, and, of course, Venice A Beautiful Crime is a thrilling read.
My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars
Some of my favourite quotes
“He believed in friendliness the same way he believed in his youth: he thought both could save him. His youth and friendliness were master keys to all future rooms.”
“The world promised Nick nothing at that age but showed him glimpses of its finest possibilities.”
“For him, walking around as a gay man in his hometown was tantamount to being out on bail: he was free to go about his business, but everyone treated him with a heightened suspicion, as if unsure whether he had committed a crime.”
“Nick saw it as a chance to be delivered from the purgatory of mid-twenties aimlessness.”
“In the stronghold of dry, hot days, visitors clotted the streets like human glue, and cruise ships barged into San Marco’s Basin with horns that blasted louder than any church bells.”
“Wheelie suitcases had become the unofficial soundtrack of Venice, a city that had triumphed for millennia on the very absence of wheels.”
“It was a secondhand high to watch a first-timer take in the city.”
“Another person’s idea of normalcy was always a foreign country, just as your borders on that dominion were constantly expanding or shrinking, ejecting proud, long-standing residents while taking in exciting new émigrés that would have been denied entry the year before.”
“In the hush of early evening, Venice changed from past to present. ”
“Nick preferred to think of people as messy whirlpools of wants and desires, as unpredictable bundles of urges even when the appropriate bait was placed in front of them. ”
“Nothing else could touch him, large or small, because he’d filled his quota on pain. But the loss of a parent doesn’t immunize a person from betrayal any more than surviving a shark bite protects its victim from a car crash.”
“Nick found himself impressed by his own bullshit. It was undeniably top-quality bullshit. It sounded so erudite and convincing, even to the one who was spewing it.”