This is the page for novels with authors and themes that you'll find on the main pages, 
but which are not set in Venice, Florence or London.
The concept of both having cake and eating it springs to mind, does it not?

 

Featured authors
 

Federico Andahazi The merciful women
When Byron, Shelley, Shelley's future wife Mary, and her sister-in-law Claire clamber out of the boat that brings them to the Villa Diodati through filthy weather, a fifth figure follows them through the so symbolic storm. He is John Polidori, Byron's servant, and the central character of this book. The off-centre focus relegates the famously scandalous behaviour of the famous four to sexy background detail, and foregrounds a story of gory gothic goings on that could have been written by one of them for their spooky-story competition that produced Frankenstein. Having read Andahazi's previous, and first, book The Anatomist I was happy to find this a similarly short and sweet novel. It mixes the salacious with the over-the-top funny, pokes at literary pretension and fizzes along and is over in no time.
Andahazi, an Argentine author, has written six more novels (and one work of non-fiction) since this one, none of which have been translated into English.

 

Dan Brown
 

The Da Vinci Code
It took me a while to get around to reading this one. Those nice Amazons spotted it as something I might like, based on past purchases, and they seemed spot on. But a couple of correspondents damned it as low-brow, and I believed them. And how could I not, when the title makes that big old dumb mistake of calling the artist Da Vinci? (It's not his surname, it just refers to where he's from.)  Later a couple more respected friends, book-taste wise, recommended it and I thought I'd give it a go. And to say that I was not disappointed is a huge understatement - I was as gripped as everyone else. It's a supremely effective - if not particularly well-written - thriller with smart background and some convincing  historical conspiracy detailing. It is less influenced by usually stately art-crime novels than it is by a couple  of my favourite TV
series of recent years. It has the menace and all-in-one-long-day grip of 24, mixed with the dark conspiracies and obsession with renaissance geniuses of Alias. It's all expertly paced and plotted, with well-timed shocks and some convincingly warm and hatefully cold humans. The basic premise of Mary Magdalene being Jesus' wife and bearing him a child is taken from a book called The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, even the authors of which now admit is full of ages-old conjecture rather than researched fact. It's all tosh, then, but entertaining tosh.  (And there was a film, starring Tom Hanks with bad hair, unfortunately, but Audrey Tautou too, so my emotions were mixed again.)

And I enjoyed it enough to want to read
Angels and demons too, the previous adventure of Robert Langdon, and it's pr
etty much the same gripping recipe - a 24-hour rollercoaster of tension, conspiracy and murder. This time it's the Illuminati, an ancient society of anti-religious scientists out for revenge for centuries of persecution at the hands of the Catholic church. Or so it seems. This one keeps you guessing with its good and evil switchbacks all the way, and you just can't stop reading. It also presents lots of arcane knowledge in digestible form, and takes us through the science vs. religion conflict in many conversations and monologues. It takes us around Rome and the Vatican too, and makes you want to go back and check out those churches again. Bernini is the featured artist in this one, and again you find yourself wondering about the fact/fiction divide. My confidence was a little dented by the book telling us that the BBC headquarters in London is just west of Piccadilly Circus - if this minor piece of easily-checkable fact wasn't checked can we trust the rest? Well, it's hard not to be caught up in the facts as well as the action, and that's the trick - appealing to the senses and the mind. But two's enough now - I don't think I'll be reading another. (But then he went and wrote one set in Florence.)
 

Michael Dibdin
Dead Lagoon is set in Venice and A Rich Full Death deals with the Brownings in Florence.
 
And then you die Faber 2002
It was Michael Dibdin who started me on this Italian-set crime novel thing with his Aurelio Zen novels. This one, like most of his novels, is not set in Venice or Florence; although Zen does pass through Florence in the early morning, and visits the market. He got seriously blown up by the Mafia in the previous book Blood rain, and so it's with relief that we find him alive and convalescing on the Tuscan coast. He's got a false name and a court in America's expecting him to identify some bad men. His disposition following his long months in hospitals, and the recent death of his mother, is not the sunniest however. But a flirtation with an attractive woman on the next beach lounger, and the fact that on the next lounger in the other direction a corpse is catching some superfluous rays, warms things up for our hero more than somewhat. This is a slim novel of characters, rather than plot twists, even if things do turn around a bit towards the end. You care, and root for, Aurelio even when events border on the farcical.

Back to Bologna Faber 2005
And if you thought that the book above bordered on the farcical... this one has upset a lot of fans by being even broader, but I enjoyed it. I think that Mr D is trying to spice up his writing and make this book a bit more knockabout and modern. He does a good job but in the process he sacrifices some of the tension and, well, seriousness he's known for. Look out for characters called Brunetti and Guarnaccia too - names cheekily nicked from the novels of the Ms's Leon and Nabb. 
  End games Faber 2007
Aurelio Zen is posted to a town in the depths of Calabria. He hates the food and the locals are suspicious, but respectfully fearful, of his unpredictability. When a lawyer working for a film company that is ostensibly intending to make a film about the End Times in the area is kidnapped our man at last has some juicy work to do. When the lawyer turns up with his head blown to mush in an abandoned hilltop town before a ransom is demanded things turn decidedly non-standard. Dibdin has lots of fun with Zen's detailed disgust with the local cuisine, the diseased geek-speak of the Microsoft millionaire running the show, and Zen's local team's shockingly slick surveillance methods. Each chapter is written in the voice of the character from whose point of view it's written, which is very entertaining too. A joy to read, all in all, and a fine and fitting end.



 

Andrew Martin

The Jim Stringer series of nine novels began with The Necropolis Railway

The Blackpool Highflyer
Jim Stringer has returned back up North, with his new wife, and now works on the Lanky - the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. Working as a train fireman he becomes obsessed by an attempt at sabotage on an excursion train to Blackpool which leads to the death of a woman and much guilt for out hero. As before the plot, though involving, is secondary to the atmosphere and real lives, with much texture provided by details of railway and mill life and the sparkling joy of holidays and the resorts. The touching depiction of the changing lives, and oddball characters, in the music halls will stick in your memory too. An involving book full of real human beings and humanity.

The Lost Luggage Porter
For this third outing Jim Stringer has been dubbed The Steam Detective and all three books now come in uniform covers decked out with suitable Victorian ephemera. Having been sacked after the events of the last book, and feeling none too good about it, this book sees our hero starting a new job as a railways detective in York. Being a fresh face he's an ideal choice to go undercover and find out what the big job is that's afoot. I found this one a little less pacey and involving than the first two: it wanders around Victorian York a little too much, admiring the period details. It does the job, though - coming to a satisfyingly twisty and messy conclusion -  just not quite as well as previously.
 


  Iain Pears The Raphael Affair
It's a rare crime novel with an Italian setting that isn't concerned with corruption and complicated politicking, and this one's no exception. This is the first in the series, the one where bumbling English art historian Jonathan Argyll first teams up with lovely Italian art cop Flavia di Stefano. They meet when Argyll is arrested in a church in Rome that he thinks houses an undiscovered painting by Raphael - undiscovered because a later painter had painted over it to enable it to leave the country undetected to be sold abroad. The plot is nicely convoluted and contains lots of interesting business about dealing in, smuggling, and faking art. There's a gripping showdown in Siena and the cover features my favourite Raphael portrait, which you'll find in Florence.

The Titian Committee is another in this series, set in Venice. Stone's Fall, not in the series, has considerable Venice content.
 



Hallie Rubenhold The French Lesson

In which our heroine, Henrietta Lightfoot, makes good her happy escape from her early life in London (as described in
Mistress of my Fate) to Brussels, briefly, and revolutionary Paris. It's 1789 and the author paints a rankly convincing picture of the city and all of its dangers, ambiguities, glitter and dirt. It's a tale of morals and survival, with more acute observation and emotions than any mere romance. A romance lies in the background, but the story is all about trust and deception. The characters are a mix of real-historical and made-up, with the same convincing narrative imagination based on sound research applied to both. (An historical figure central to the plot is Grace Dalrymple Elliot, who was painted by Gainsborough (see right), wrote a memoir and was the subject of the Eric Rohmer film The Lady and the Duke.) The plot gathers pace and lets increasing blood until by the end the reader is gripped and flipping pages with no thought for sleep or stopping, to learn how, and if, our heroine survives. A novel to savour.


Timothy Williams

Big Italy (Commissario Trotti Book 5)
Political and police corruption mix with sexual intrigue, as is far from unusual in crime novels set in Italy (Lombardy this time) in the 1990s. This one is even more labyrinthine than usual, but quite stately in pace, so following it's not hard. It stands apart by having a central character, Commissario Trotti, who falls into neither of the staple crime novel detective moulds - he's neither a cosily contented father, nor a tortured bachelor with an artistic obsession. He's separated from his wife, grouchy as hell, on the verge of retirement, and strangely lovable. His warming relationship with a woman who works with him with abused children is believable and touching too. A fine, involving and subtle book.
If you would like to read more about Trotti then click here.


The Second Day of the Renaissance (Commissario Trotti Book 6)
The review of Big Italy above dates from 2002 - way back in the early days of this website - and a lot has changed since then. 2013 saw the publication (by Soho Crime) of a new novel by Timothy Williams called Another Sun, the reprinting of all five of the Trotti novels followed in 2014/15, and now (May 2017) the 6th Trotti is finally seeing print. It begins with Trotti, now retired and stranded in brass-monkey weather at Florence's Santa Maria Novella station, waiting four hours for the train to Empoli. He's heading for Siena where an old colleague has invited him to come and find out the identity of the person who's planning on killing him. Then it's on to Rome, for his goddaughter's wedding and to try to find out, from old friends and enemies, who wants him dead, and who's been lying and lied to. Things clarify at a satisfying rate, with action and beatings taking place between the tantalising revelations and emotional past-rakings. Aside from time spent in Siena, Rome and Bologna, the discussions of lives lived in Sicily, Milan and Padua give good flavours of those places too. And the author's grasp of post-war Italian politics and such-like shenanigans is firm and fascinating. He also seems to like cars, as every mention of them is of a particular model which has, I suppose, meaning for those in the know*. All I know is that one such mention is of a red Twingo, the only car I've loved since leaving my teens behind, and an especial feature of my first trips to Italy in the 1990s. Further nostalgic frissons are provided by mobile phones having extendable aerials and the paying for things with lira. Nostalgia for the 90s! So, if you like your novels with recognisable and real characters, perfectly paced, with unforeseeable revelations and well-evoked locations, in Italy, then put this one on your list. The title, by the way, refers to the theory that as Patrarch first saw his Laura on the 6th of April in 1327, the renaissance began on that day. She died in 1348 at the same hour of the same day.
*The author writes, to say that he is no lover of cars, but that the naming of particular models is a writerly ruse to set the character's place in society and time.


The 2004 Henry James 
biographical novel glut

David Lodge Author, author
It's the subject of this novel who counts as featured here rather than the author. This was the third novel published in 2004 to deal with the life of Henry James. Here it's a relatively straightforward fictionalised account of his middle years, his relationship with George DuMaurier (who shares my birthday, by the way) and his confidence-crushing forays into writing for the theatre. The action is mainly set in London and England, but there are visits to Florence and, of course, Venice. The topographical is not important here though. Henry shows Florence to Constance Fenimore Woolson, so inspiring a short story and her love. This is never consummated and HJ, we are told, never experiences the act of consummation with anyone, male or female, in his whole life. This fact may be hard to believe, but his life and character makes it seem less so. There are many delightfully waspish exchanges between HJ and Miss Woolson in this novel, but she ends her own life tragically in Venice, with our hero's lack of expressed love for her maybe a major factor. I was left wanting to know more about her, which lead to this page. The centre of the book, though, is HJ's relationship with DuMaurier and his family. It presents them as the suppliers of the most necessary human hub in his life and puts them at the centre of the social and professional whirl of his later life. DuMaurier was an influential cartoonist for Punch - he drew the famous one (right) about the curate's egg that coined the phrase - and went on to write novels when his eyesight failed him. Foremost amongst these is Trilby, the biggest selling international fiction phenomenon ever, in its day, and the inspiration for cash-in items from sausages to hats. To say that Henry James was not unconditionally happy for his friend is a considerable understatement. You'll finish the book a little saddened for the man, who never really lost himself to another human being, and who never knew how fully, indeed excessively, his artistic ambitions were to be realised decades after his death.


Alan Hollinghurst The line of beauty
The third in this sequence was not about Henry James in any real sense, it just featured a central character whose only real work was on his post-grad thesis on the author. The fact that he's gay, and that the book deals with the kind of rampant sexuality so alien to HJ, might constitute a link. But really this is more a dissection of the hedonistic 80s, power, privilege and friendship. It's a fine book, more feeling than the Lodge and running the Tóibín a close second, but not Jamesian in any overt sense, although that's what it's said to be.
 


TRUE HUMILITY (also known as The Curate's Egg)
Right Reverend Host: "I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr. Jones!"
The Curate: "Oh no, my Lord, I assure you ! Parts of it are excellent!"

Colm Tóibín The Master 
Compared to the Lodge this one's a warmer and more moving read, so maybe less appropriate to its subject, you'd think, but I think not. It deals again with his later years and so covers much the same ground as Author, author. It differs, though, by trying to get at HJ's emotions, his feelings following the deaths of close family and friends that haunted his later life, especially Miss Woolson's, and how these events shaped his work. Tóibín puts this latter relationship at the core of the novel as the crucial one of the man's life. A convincing argument, and a truly moving portrait of a couple  in need of their solitude and of each other too. It remains a mystery, though, whether Constance's withdrawal was a reaction to Henry's coolness and timidity or a symptom of her own need. It seems to me she was doing what she needed to do to preserve their relationship, but it's a moot point. The scene where Henry, trying to avoid the scene of Constance's suicide in Venice but finding himself lost and drifting towards it, stops and addresses her ghost, so strong for him there, will bring a tear to the most male eyes. A moving and involving read, as you may have noticed.

     

Dutch Art
There was a sudden rash of Dutch Golden Age-related novels as the last millennium ended.
The Vermeer-era dominates.


Tracy Chevalier
The Girl with a Pearl Earring 

This novel attempts to tell us the story behind Vermeer's mysterious painting of the same name, and to provide us with a believable life for a man we know very little about. The girl is Griet, who comes to work for the Vermeers as a maid to help her own family's fortunes after the accidental blinding of her father. She falls under the spell of Vermeer and his art and we share in her wonder. Vermeer himself is kept a somewhat shady figure, whilst life in Delft is the bright foreground. It's a pretty convincing picture, painted by a novelist who's here getting more than her money's worth out of the annual fee on her poetic license. Nice film too.

 

Michael Frayn Headlong
In which a man gets well out of his depth and just about escapes with his life. An academic couple take their baby, which they've named after a brand of rice for some reason,  down to their country cottage and take time off to  get a little writing done. An invite from the local land-owner to dinner, in his cold and damp pile with his hot and unhappy wife, and his post-prandial invitation to his guests to give their informed opinions on a couple of old paintings, sets in motion a semi-farcical, semi-surprising roller coaster of art and greed and confused intentions. Our hero, the husband, thinks that one of the paintings is a long lost Brueghel, you see - one of the lost episodes in his cycle of the seasons - and he also thinks that he can get the painting, and the glory of its discovery, for himself. The subsequent shenanigans are a hook upon which is hung much Brueghel scholarship and, quite frankly, I ended up caring more about Brueghel than the characters in the book. But it grips, eventually, and informs, and the characters have a warm believability, at times.


Deborah Moggach Tulip fever

A novel dealing with the three most famous aspects of the Dutch 
Golden Age - art, money and tulips. The elderly husband speculates in tulip bulbs (a commodity with which fortunes could then be made) whilst he and his wife are having their portrait painted, and she is having secret sex with the artist. It would make a nice change to read a novel where the wife of a boorish young artist finds love and orgasms in the arms of a sensitive elderly merchant, but this is still an involving re-telling of a timeless tale. 

 


Venice // Florence // London // Berlin

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