A murder tale set in venice

2007-10-31 00:00

In recent years we've been treated to a lot of really good stories of crime, mystery and suspense from a variety of European countries, well-plotted, well-written and fluently and colloquially translated into English.

This murder tale, originally in French, and set in the Venice of 1756, breaks that particular mould, however. Written by someone who has apparently overdosed on 19th century swashbucklers such as Dumas and Hugo - without understanding just what makes these such wonderful yarns - it's clumsily plotted, extravagantly florid, and has been lumpily and carelessly translated - and then proof-read by illiterates. It's also rather nasty.

A murderous mastermind, known only as the Chimera, stalks the city during Carnival, savagely attacking people he deems sinners and making the punishment fit the perceived crime by following the guidelines given in the Inferno of Dante Alighieri. Very bloody and messy, of course, and the author dwells lovingly on the details, as the killer strives to populate the nine circles of hell with the traitorous, the depraved and the gluttonous. Luckily the Doge of Venice has at his disposal Pietro Luigi Viravolta de Lansalt, a dashing figure otherwise known as the Black Orchid, rake, gambler, lover, spy, friend of Giacomo Casanova, and currently awaiting execution. Pietro is released and given the task of unmasking the murderer.

He does this, of course, which is good because in the process he discovers a secret sect and foils a plot intended to bring Venice down. Pity it takes him so long; pity he and the rest of the characters have so little to recommend them; pity the rich colour and excitement of the Carnival fail to make it on to the page. In fact, the whole thing's a pity. Don't waste your time.

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