Acclaimed British author David Hewson is known for his best-selling crime fiction, but he is also a brilliant writer of place. And that place is increasingly Venice. With five fantastic Venice based books to his credit, on October 4 Hewson will launch The Medici Murders, the first “history mystery” book in a new series. The following interview reveals the process of Hewson’s writing life and explores his fascination with Venice.
You were originally a journalist with UK newspapers for over 20 years. What made you decide to become an author specifically in the crime fiction genre? Was your skill as a journalist a help or a hindrance to writing novels initially?
I’ve always loved reading, very widely too, historical, non-fiction, crime, so it was always an ambition. But newspapers were how I made my living for 20 years until I finally found the space – a cushy job writing a weekly column for the Sunday Times – to write. Being a journalist has its advantages – you understand editing and the need to revise, and you’re not precious about your words. But at the same time journalism is about fact and truth, and fiction very much isn’t.
Your novels are as much about place as they are about dastardly crimes. Seville, Rome, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Verona, New York, and the Faroe Islands have all been settings in over 20 books and audio adaptations. In 2004 you wrote Lucifer’s Shadow, your first book set in Venice. What inspired you to turn your attention to Venice, and then to continue with five more books, and now a new series?
Chancing upon Venice was pure luck. My first book, Semana Santa, set in Seville was a huge hit and was turned into a (terrible) movie. My second did well, but after that sales fell and I struggled juggling a journalistic career with writing a book a year. By 1999 I had one book left to write on my contract and I was convinced it was the last I’d ever get published.
The paper sent me on a story to Venice, a place I’d never visited. While there I wandered round and decided to put my own resources into renting a flat and writing the book I wanted, not the one I thought readers and the publisher did. Which turned out to be a two-era story encompassing Canaletto and Vivaldi and the modern city. Italy had worked its way into my blood. Still there two and a half decades on.
You exhibit phenomenal expertise in your Venice books. They are accurate depictions of not only the physical city and Lagoon but the culture and politics. In Lucifer’s Shadow you have a mastery of Venice, her whims, and foibles. How much time had you spent in Venice prior to writing your first Venice based novel?
Probably a couple of months but I didn’t speak any Italian, so I signed up with a language school in Rome. Italy is transformed when you can speak just a little of the language. Without it you’re always an outsider and miss so much.
We meet the young and impressionable Daniel Forster in Lucifer’s Shadow, your first book based in Venice. The story is a tightly woven composition between Vivaldi’s Venice of the 18th century and present-day Venice. When you have two strong story lines that seamlessly build together, which comes first, the historical narrative or the current one? Or do you develop both simultaneously?
I wrote them simultaneously since these are essentially the same two stories, with the same two protagonists, happening centuries apart, one couple taking the happy path while the others take the tragic one. At the same time, I started to develop an organized system of research, something that’s served me well over the years – photos, notes, annotated reference works. Essential for my kind of work.
In 2006, your second Venice book came out, The Lizard’s Bite. It works as a stand-alone, but it is also the 3rd book in the Nic Costa series. Costa is a Roman detective, exiled unhappily in Venice. His life picks up remarkably when tasked to solve an incendiary double murder.
Imagine my delight when I bumped into several characters from Lucifer’s Shadow infiltrating The Lizard’s Bite. Having characters reappear in subsequent books lends intriguing continuity and is in keeping with the nature of Venice, where lives intersect frequently. Does the continuation of characters happen organically when each book is written? Or did you plot out the trajectory of the characters from the very beginning over three consecutive novels?
There were some dangling threads in Lucifer I thought might make an interesting addition to Lizard – a little bit of metafiction for those who spotted it. It really was as simple as passing on some of the storylines from Luciferto the new book and seeing how the worked there. I never plot in detail: I work on characters, the world they inhabit, the events that raise the problems they must face, then see where everything leads.
The Lizard’s Bite delves into the making of Murano glass and the insular nature of Venetian glassmakers. Were you able to interview glass makers to learn their secrets?
I did visit a couple, not that they’d ever tell you their secrets. Mostly, understandably, they wanted to sell you their glass. At the time the industry was in dire straits – as it still is. Murano’s a funny place, quite unlike Venice it seems to me. I’m not sure they welcome outsiders easily. You have to be economical with research in fiction – when the truth works, use it, when it doesn’t fit, just lie.
After meeting the Roman forensic pathologist Teresa Lupo in The Lizard’s Bite, I was delighted to read Carnival for the Dead (2012) her stand-alone novel. The book was a fantastical foil to the rational mind of a doctor who deals in corpses all day. A diminutive volpino, a French count, and sinister Flight of the Angel all contributed to the suspense.
That was all a tip of the hat to one of my favorite authors, Jorge Luis Borges, now commemorated in a maze on San Giorgio Maggiore. A touch of magical realism for a city that’s always magical.
Teresa Lupo is a scientist who does not believe in coincidences. She is irascible and impatient with Venetian tendency to lack of urgency. Lupo is joined in your books by several other brave, feisty, and intelligent officers of the law: Giulia Morelli, Paola Boscolo, and Valentina Fabbri. How do you develop your female carabinieri? Are they inspired by anyone you’ve met in Venice?
I’m never consciously inspired by real people but I’ve always tried to write strong women characters. I grew up in a working-class Yorkshire mining village which was pretty matriarchal – miners and steelworkers took home their pay packet on a Friday, handed it over to their wives, then got some pocket money for beer in the working men’s clubs. You didn’t mess with Yorkshire women when I was growing up so I’ve never been one for female characters who can’t stand up for themselves. As for female characters who are simply there to make the coffee or as sex objects… not me.
You mention Alberto Toso Fei’s Venetian Legends and Ghost Stories as a resource for when you were writing Carnival for the Dead. Are there other books about Venice that have been instrumental resources for you?
John Julius Norwich’s seminal history is my go-to reference work. I had the good fortune to meet him at a book event in Waterstones in Piccadilly when we were both doing a mass signing. Lovely chap. As for the rest I pick and choose depending on the book. For The Medici Murders I really enjoyed a book about the Lorenzino de’ Medici case written by Stefano Dall’aglio, an academic at Ca’ Foscari, The Duke’s Assassin: Exile and Death of Lorenzino De’ Medici.
Shooter in the Shadows (2020) is the anomaly with basically two primary characters and one setting. The limits of the story, for me, makes it the most menacing of your Venice books. It felt claustrophobic in the sense that when the evil started there was nowhere to hide. Was it more difficult to work within the restrictions you imposed or more liberating because you could focus on a singular location in the middle of the Lagoon?
Shooter was originally written as an audio production for Audible, a kind of reward I got for winning an Audie for a rewrite of Romeo and Juliet with that great actor Richard Armitage. I wanted it to be like a stage play, pure drama, limited cast, mostly a single location, an out of the way villa in the northern lagoon, with a very constricted timeline. Forcing yourself to use very limited resources in terms of character and location is very interesting and, as you say, results in that claustrophobic atmosphere. It was an experiment, one I enjoyed, not something I’m planning to return to, at least for a while.
The Garden of Angels (2022) is the most loving of your books and the most horrific, the contrast is stark and unsettling. The relationships between grandfather and grandson, brother and sister, and friends who endure the ultimate sacrifice during a time of war, haunted me. The parallel structure of present and WWII history is woven so realistically because the past is recent, and a critical character lives in both story lines. This layering of history is felt acutely when we realize the horrors of Nazism remain in people’s lives that are still living.
What led you to this story of fascism in Venice during WWII? Was there something inherent in the atrocities of the war that inspired the poignant relationships?
This book was three years in the writing, very personal, something that had been bothering me for a while. At its heart is the simple question… do we learn from history? More and more over the last decade, I’ve felt… clearly not.
The starting point in Venice was a street sign near the Giardini vaporetto stop – Riva dei Sette Martiri. Who were these martyrs? Seven Venetian men shot by the Nazis after a German soldier was found dead in the lagoon (who’d probably fallen in drunk). After that I started to ask myself what WWII was like in Venice and the answers, which didn’t come easily, were astonishing, in the ghetto naturally, but also among the population as a whole, torn between loyalties, political, family and national. The horrors of the Nazi occupation were all round me, forgotten, almost as if they didn’t exist.
For example, the beautiful palazzo Ca’ Giustinian on the Grand Canal, not home to the Biennale organization. You can have a coffee or a spritz there by the canal, and delightful it is too. But during the war this was the home to some of the worst Nazis around, and in 1944 the building was reduced to rubble, killing thirteen people inside, after the partisans planted a bomb there. A few days later thirteen partisans were shot on the ruins in retaliation. Who remembers? What dangers lurk if we forget? That’s what this book is about, the story of a young man discovering what happened to his grandfather during the war, and what his nonno’s tale says about today.
Your new book, The Medici Murders (2022) reads like the love child of Agatha Christie and Dan Brown–but better–because Venice. By intertwining the history of the murderous Medici family reflected against contemporary dysfunctional group of friends, you were able to create a byzantine path of deceits, rivals, murder, and mayhem. We meet the clever and reticent Arnold Clover, for the first time, (but not the last). Since this is the first book of your new series your reluctant hero will return. Why did you decide to embark on a Venice based series now after so many successful stand-alones?
One word: pandemic. 2020 really threw me. I struggled with what to write. The Garden of Angels was a tough book that went to some very dark places – inevitably given the subject matter though I hope the ending has some hope in it. But I couldn’t face going back to that darkness again.
I’m not a fan of violence unless it’s absolutely necessary, and certainly not the idea that the way to beat bad guys with guns is to give the good guys bigger ones.
I’m also wary of stories that focus on events and ‘pace’ more than character and location. So often you read reviews these days saying, ‘This book is great – I read it in one go in a couple of hours’. Which is fine but books are like food – there’s fast food and there’s slow. I like books that draw you into their world gradually and let you sink into the places and the people there. Slow books have their place just as much as fast ones, and slow is my field.
When I thought about what I wanted to write next, I came to the conclusion I wanted it to be informed, intelligent entertainment. Not another ‘breakneck thriller’ but the kind of ‘curl up with a book’ read I’ve always loved myself. One that will reveal a different side of history to people and perhaps make them embark on their own exploration of the back stories of the Medici and other historical characters you encounter there.
Sometimes before you discover what you want to write, you need to find what you don’t.
There is a tautness to your writing, it feels like we’ve entered an immaculate landscape where every detail has been conceptualized and conceived, with no room for error. But right in the beginning of The Medici Murders, when I was laughing quite loudly, I felt a sense of ease, and as I read further a sense of flamboyance. Was this book enjoyable for you to write in a way that was different from the others?
It was enormous fun. Arnold is quite introverted and English, but his voluble Venetian friend from the State Archives, Luca Volpetti, is quite a card, unflappable in his own eyes, anything but in Arnold’s. Then we have the steely Carabinieri capitano Valentina Fabbri who is very likeable but quite sly and sneaky.
In this book too we have two extraordinary first-hand accounts of the assassinations at the center of the plot – that of Alessandro de’ Medici, Duke of Florence, by his cousin Lorenzino, and Lorenzino’s own murder in Venice eleven years later. Lorenzino wrote a self-serving ‘apology’ for the killing, but one of his own assassins also wrote a very colorful and unapologetic description of how he stalked his victim in the Venice winter of 1548 and then barely escaped with his life.
You can walk every foot of the way and I did, right to the bridge where Lorenzino died, as will a British TV historian in the book who thinks he has a new angle on the murder.
How can writing fiction in Venice never be fun? The place is more than a city. It’s a world, a universe, somewhere that, alongside Florence, has shaped the modern world in so many ways, not just through music and art but in terms of government too. Modern state intelligence practice, for example, owes much to the Council of Ten’s creation of a governmental network of spies across Europe and beyond. The problem for a novelist in Venice isn’t lack of inspiration but a surfeit of it.
I love Clover’s profession, as a retired archivist. How did you prepare to write so convincingly about the intricacies of his profession? Were there locations in The Medici Murders that required you seek out and explore for the first time?
Research, research, research. Most of the locations I knew already – the real ones, a few are invented. So the donkey work was mainly in reading up on Medici history and the question, now probably answered, of who was behind Lorenzino’s assassination in the first place. The walk from his home in Campo San Polo to the Ponte San Tomà where he died is one I’ve done many times before.
You mentioned that The Medici Murders was “different” than your other books. To me, it felt like a grand culmination of the others, so I’m curious why you feel it is dissimilar?
I think because of the deliberate, lighter feel, and the fact I decided I wouldn’t be encumbered by the need to keep putting in cliffhangers and pointless ‘events’ along the way. That’s to say the momentum of the story comes from its characters and their response to the problems they face, not from external factors inserted for ‘pace’. I want this to be read as a ‘history mystery’, a winding, intriguing story that moves at its own speed, not that of a beach read thriller.
We’ve only met once briefly. But I couldn’t help feeling that Arnold Clover shared some of your personality traits. Is there a bit of David Hewson in Arnold Clover?
Arnold’s much more organized than I can ever be. Though we’re both curious to the point of nosy, and have a habit of sticking our noses into places where, on occasion, we’re not much wanted. I wouldn’t mind his apartment near San Pantalon though.
The Medici Murders was beautifully detailed in calle, ponte, and fondamenta, I found myself walking along with your characters, whether in this century or the Renaissance. Do you literally map out your plots to achieve this level of realism? If readers try to retrace the steps of the novel, how successful will they be?
I walk every step, more than once, take photos and many notes. I want the world to feel as real as possible. So yes, readers can retrace my steps, but what I won’t do for the Clover books is offer a map. The real Venice needs to be discovered through serendipity, accident and getting lost, not by following lines on a page or a guide with a flag.
I know that you are currently writing the second book in the series. Are there any hints you can share about Clover’s next adventure?
The premise for Arnold’s second outing is simple. The existence of a precious, very personal portrait of a famous Italian woman has emerged from what appears to be a previously lost fragment of a notorious Venetian’s memoirs. Arnold and a penniless English woman who, by rights, ought to be the painting’s owner have to decode eight riddles in the story in order to find it, save her from a precarious existence and possibly a criminal charge from the police.
The riddles are to do with Venice itself, all but one real places I doubt even most old Venice hands will be able to tick off in their entirety. So if you think there was a lot of Venice in The Medici Murders… wait till you see this one.
You’ve been writing about Venice since 2004 and visiting for even longer. How has the city changed?
The first Venice I encountered was in 1988, a very different place. No one wanted to live there so depopulation was already under way, property was dead cheap (if only I’d had the money) and there were neighborhood butchers and bakers everywhere, mostly gone now and turned into bars or shops selling tourist tat. Overtourism is a huge problem with no easy answers though if you know the city well it’s easy to avoid the crowds, most of whom hang around San Marco and the Rialto and rarely venture anywhere else.
And, for all its faults, MOSE has at least stopped acqua alta in most parts of the city which is quite something given the horrors we witnessed a couple of years ago.
Venice is the most curious place I know. Visually it shifts with the seasons, like a painting being constantly redrawn by a different artist. Yet culturally and in terms of its inner personality I’m not sure it changes much at all.
What I do know is that even now, when I spend a couple of months there each year, I still head back to the UK congratulating myself on some new side to the city I’ve just discovered, while cursing myself because there’s always something I meant to do but didn’t.
Non basta una vita. Or even several.
Photo credit: Iain Reid