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A Beautiful Crime

Review

A Beautiful Crime

It’s risky to write a novel set in Venice. Eminent literary shades --- Thomas Mann, Henry James, Daphne du Maurier, Patricia Highsmith --- inevitably gather, setting up echoes and comparisons: DEATH IN VENICE meets THE WINGS OF THE DOVE meets DON’T LOOK NOW meets THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY. On the other hand, La Serenissima, with its ravishing water and light, its mazelike streets, never fails to dazzle and enchant. (I’m lucky enough to have just been there, which made reading this book all the more fun.)

A BEAUTIFUL CRIME, Christopher Bollen’s fourth novel, has some of the same themes as that roll call of Venice-inspired books: schemes to swindle the wealthy, same-sex love, getting away with murder. Former editor-in-chief of Interview, the author no doubt has intimate knowledge of the rich, arty and offbeat --- and he’s adept at imagining the tangled psyches of those who plot to rip them off.

Getting the reader to root for a charming con man/killer --- in this case, two of them --- is a classic fictional strategy, from Ripley to (more recently) ethical serial killer Dexter and Joe, the stalker/murderer guy in YOU. Bollen pulls it off. And by making Nick Brink and Clay Guillory not only co-conspirators but lovers, he appeals to the romantic in all of us. We don’t want them to be caught; we want them to get their happily-ever-after.

"[T]he setting is marvelous. Venice isn’t just a scenic background for the action of A BEAUTIFUL CRIME. Its capricious tides and twisty, deceptive geography seem to mirror the characters’ secrets and intrigues."

The story is told alternately from the two men’s points of view. Nick, a newcomer to Venice, is a devastatingly handsome, compulsively flirtatious guy from Dayton, Ohio: bullied as a kid, still closeted to his family (“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”), and chafing at the role (“the eternal apprentice”) laid out for him by Ari, his older, highly cultured, marriage-minded boyfriend in New York.

Clay’s first contact with Venice, like Bollen’s, was as an intern at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, the city’s premier modern-art museum; he describes himself as “a middle-class black kid from the Bronx suddenly crowned a prince of Italy.” Still reeling from the premature death of his mother (who “smothered him with love and acceptance” when he came out) and the remoteness of his grieving father, Clay was at a vulnerable point when he became the part-time assistant of an affluent American expatriate, Richard Forsyth West. Later, he found out that his employer had spread false rumors about him, sabotaging his chances for a permanent job at the museum.

It was then that Clay became the soulmate of one Freddy van der Haar, scion of an illustrious Dutch-American family that had fallen on hard times and a legendary, flamboyant figure in New York’s gay subculture. For four years Clay lived with Freddy in Venice, Paris and Brooklyn; cared for him during his final illness; and, when he died, inherited some “antique” silver of dubious authenticity; part of a Venetian palazzo; and a humongous pile of debts. Now he needs money, and he wants revenge on West.

The route to both is to get West to pay hundreds of thousands for the phony heirlooms. Nick’s role is to authenticate them (Ari, an expert on silver, taught him enough to pose as a professional). So far, so good. Until, well… A BEAUTIFUL CRIME is the kind of novel where you just know something is going to go wrong with the scam sooner or later, leading one or both of the guys to commit acts they’d never imagined themselves capable of. But you don’t know when, or how, and Bollen is adept at keeping the suspense nicely taut.

He also excels at evoking Venice itself. His fascination with the watery city is clear, his descriptions both accurate and eloquent. Clay “loved getting lost. It seemed like the whole point of Venice, built to trick and confuse. Taking a wrong turn and nearly plunging into a canal or skipping over a bridge that dead-ended in a brick wall was part of the town’s fugitive magic.” Bollen underlines the tension between those who want to save Venice, preserving its ancient glories, and those who replace palazzi with cheap tourist housing and run roughshod over the diminishing number of people, only 53,000, who actually live there. “I’m afraid the tourists are finally winning,” Daniela, a friend of Clay’s, tells Nick. “We’ve been conquered by a well-organized army of occupiers who have no interest in staying more than three nights.” Or, to put it another way, “Venice has been visited to death.”

While Bollen’s characterizations of Venice really sing (“a symphony playing inside a shipwreck”), his people aren’t always as vivid. Supporting players like Ari, Freddy and West’s current assistant, Battista --- even the villainous silver expert Dulles Hawkes --- seem to me more colorful than Nick and Clay, who need to be presented attractively and somewhat blandly in order to sustain the reader’s sympathy.

Nick especially is a bit of a cipher, cute and initially rather passive. He hasn’t yet found his life’s passion; meanwhile, “he has Clay.” Clay is tougher; he grew up “expecting every door to be nailed shut before he even reached to open it.” Yet he, too, is sweet and decent, hardly a hustler or gold digger, though Freddy’s old friends label him as just that.

Some critics have compared Bollen to Patricia Highsmith; however, I think he’s gentler than she is. Unlike her antihero, the amoral Ripley, Nick and Clay struggle with conscience; there is nothing offhand about their crimes and misdemeanors. “I’m a really bad crook,” Nick tells Clay. His response: “A bad crook is the best kind.” A BEAUTIFUL CRIME has a lot more heart than Highsmith’s dark thrillers, but the plotting is less skillful, lacking the surprise twists I expected.

If the structure is imperfect, the setting is marvelous. Venice isn’t just a scenic background for the action of A BEAUTIFUL CRIME. Its capricious tides and twisty, deceptive geography seem to mirror the characters’ secrets and intrigues. I rooted for Clay and Nick to get away with their swindle. I also rooted --- and still do --- for proud, resilient Venice to survive the floods of water and tourists that threaten to drown her.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on January 31, 2020

A Beautiful Crime
by Christopher Bollen

  • Publication Date: January 28, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Literary, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0062853880
  • ISBN-13: 9780062853882