Arnold Clover, the reluctant hero of David Hewson’s masterful new crime series set in Venice, has returned. The Borgia Portrait, is a canny delight, weaving a beguiling tale of murder and mayhem. Clover reveals a labyrinth of history across centuries, as he races to complete a series of mysterious riddles with devastating consequences. The book is resplendent in Venetian lore, from Casanova and Aldus Manutius to a hidden crypt in a cursed palazzo. Here, David Hewson discusses his writing process, inspirations, and the conundrum that is Venice.
In The Borgia Portrait we are introduced to a new side of our reluctant hero. Arnold Clover is still curious, clever, and capable; however, we see a softening, a glimmer of his romantic nature. His insists on protecting the penniless and captivating Lizzie Hawkins, even though she refuses to be considered a damsel in distress. If I liked Arnold Clover in The Medici Murders, I adore him now.
In the life of a series do you intentionally reveal the nuances of your characters in a way that with each book we learn more? Can you give us a hint of future revelations that will be divulged for Clover and his best friends Luca Volpetti and Valentina Fabbri?
Characters always grow from book to book. If they don’t, they’re not ‘real’. In the first book Arnold’s recently widowed and struggling to make sense of his new life, alone, in a new and very strange city. When we meet him here, he’s more settled, more confident, more amenable to entering the world a bit. More of a protagonist too, making things happen rather than letting things happen to him.
As to where he goes now… I need to keep my cards close to my chest. I feel he’s becoming more proactive, more of a detective if you like. So, in any next outing he will be a little bit more outgoing, I think. Which given his propensity for getting in terrible pickles should make for an interesting story.
Reading The Borgia Portrait often felt like literary cartography, as the map was being drawn linking the intricate movements of the characters as they completed their arcane puzzle. Did you ever use a physical map of Venice to conceive the direction, turns, and twists, plotting the circle as you went? Or were you able to conceive of their route completely in your mind’s eye?
I set myself a simple challenge with this story. Beneath the surface of the main narrative, I wanted to create a cryptic riddle which could only be solved by locating some real-life oddities hidden within the fabric of Venice itself. You can’t Google things like that.
Over several trips, I walked every step of the long journey Arnold and Lizzie Hawker make, a circle from Castello, across the Grand Canal to Dorsoduro, Santa Croce, then to Cannaregio, looking to solve the strange puzzle she’s been left. And yes, I have a map of all the curiosities they meet along the way, every one but the last climactic place real. But I purposely decided not to share that in the book and online. People need to find these places for themselves. That’s the only way to get the most out of Venice’s more arcane corners. And for anyone who wants to embark on what I think of as the Borgia Portrait Trail a word of advice… take good walking shoes! It’s quite a hike.
Your ability to fabricate intricate Venetian details is enchanting. The moment I was introduced to the 15th century Ca’ Scacchi, I couldn’t place it and rushed to my Grand Canal books to see what it looked like in reality. It was the Ruskin anecdote that utterly fooled me. Touché!
Which palazzi were your inspirations to create this derelict, haunting architectural fantasy?
Ca’ Scacchi can only be based on one place… the legendary Ca’ Dario near the Guggenheim in Dorsoduro, a beautiful, slightly crooked palazzo that’s fascinated me for decades. This has such a spooky reputation going back centuries I simply had to use it as the basis for the abandoned home on the Grand Canal in the book. Suicides, murders, financial failures, even a onetime British pop Svengali who came to a sticky end… Ca’ Dario has it all. A godsend to any writer in Venice. And the Ruskin quote? I like to drop in a few Easter eggs for those in the know…
Along with being a masterful crime mystery, The Borgia Portrait is also a generous guide to some of the most delicious, less known, places to eat in Venice.
Do the restaurants know they’ve been included?
Are you concerned that your favorite haunts may become too popular after the book comes out?
There’s a dilemma when it comes to dealing with real places in a real city. Do you disguise them under another name and then put up with readers coming on and asking, ‘Did you really mean this one?’ Or do you just say it out loud – here’s the Osteria ai Pugni, here’s Anzolo Raffaele, All Frasca? In the end I decided to take the latter route. I never tell the people there who I am or what I’m doing. I like to be anonymous in Venice which unfortunately isn’t always possible these days. Do I worry I’ll make them too popular? Not really. Most are busy in any case, and well known for anyone who investigates the food scene. It’s just that they’re not in the tourist magnets of San Marco and Rialto, areas I avoid if I can. One piece of advice for anyone who wants to try them though… book if you can. They’re popular with locals and canny visitors alike.
Food apart there’s a structural reason Arnold keeps taking Lizzie out for meals. It’s his way of trying to show her there’s more to Venice than she realizes. And a way for him to start to come back into the world.
The historical references and familial intrigue of Lucrezia Borgia are fascinating. What are your criteria for identifying a historical transgression to center a plot around?
I brought the Borgias in to try to make the point that Venice was for centuries a nexus for not just Italy but Europe as a whole. There are so many famous names connected with the city. In this book we meet Lord Byron, the painter Modigliani, the publisher Aldus Manutius, a curious English author Frederick Rolfe, and the legendary Lucrezia through her love affair with a famous Venetian intellectual, Pietro Bembo. This is also a story about a wronged woman, and Lucrezia certainly fits that bill since many of the more lurid stories about her are probably fabrications. But I guess I also wanted to try to prompt people to think about Venice beyond the obvious – the sights and the memories people often flock to, sometimes for a fleeting visit. Venice is more than a place, it’s a world, and even after three decades I still know there’s so much left to explore.
The Borgia Portrait gives us Venice as an impossible labyrinth, with nooks and crannies that defy any sense of normalcy. Were all these mysterious locations known to you before you started writing or did you research these hidden gems specifically for this book?
I knew a couple, but I set out to try to find places and sights that were so obscure even diehard Venice lovers might never have heard of them. To that end I found a couple of old books back from the days before mass tourism and hunted around old documents and sites on the web. There’s also a wonderful website about the city’s churches which is an invaluable source – The Churches of Venice etc. As a former journalist, research is second nature. It’s amazing what you can find if you take the time to look.
At the end of the book Luca Volpetti coyly exclaims “The Red Priest! Revelations…” Is it a tantalizing plot tease for book #3? Can we expect to see Vivaldi make an appearance?
As someone once said… you may think that, but I can’t possibly comment!
Venice faces many challenges right now. You don’t hesitate to include them in the book. As someone who has developed a deep relationship to the city and visits regularly, what do you recommend is the best way for people to support Venice?
I sometimes think the best advice is… don’t go. The last couple of trips I’ve been astonished and dismayed by the state of things in the more popular parts of town. On the last trip I actually saw security guards policing the San Zaccaria vaporetto stop because there were more people trying to get on the boats than they could handle. That’s a new one on me. Overtourism is a problem that seems to get worse by the year.
But you have to go, of course, so be responsible, know why you’re there, and don’t get sucked into the San Marco and Rialto tourist traps. Many people seem to treat Venice as a kind of Disneyland, a resort, not one of the world’s most historic and fascinating cities. Of course, if people want to go and see it as nothing more than a gelato, a gondola ride, and a walk through the Piazza San Marco and across the Rialto bridge that’s their prerogative.
But there’s so much more to see and enjoy if only you break away from the crowds and explore the quieter, sometimes darker corners. That’s what I did with The Borgia Portrait. I’d do it all again tomorrow… and doubtless find something new.
Top image: Proof Venice has crypts.
All Venice photos by David Hewson
JoAnn Locktov, Bella Figura Communications