This article appeared in the Sunday Island on May 15 2016
This fragrant isle gets a mention in Michael White’s new book. One of the hero’s friends, Lord Pinelli, has a manservant called Ajith who is from India. Another servant, who generally answers the door, is called Pius, named as an insult to the Pope of that name. Pius was originally from the jungles of Borneo and no-one is quite sure how he came to be in a Venetian noblemen’s house in 1592. There is speculation that he arrived on a Portuguese spice ship from Taprobane. Pius is an orang-utan.
As in Equinox, his first novel, in this new book, The Venetian Detective, Michael White uses the vehicle of the detective novel to explore unexpected connections between the rational development of modern scientific practice and alchemy, occultism, necromancy and religion. Mixed in with that is a gumbo of political intrigue and rivalry, papal dominance versus Venetian republican libertarianism, drug dealing and prostitution. There is also a love story.
Michael White is a British writer based in Australia. Born in 1959, he studied at King’s College London (1977-1982) and was a Chemistry lecturer at d’Overbroeck’s College, Oxford (1984-1991). He used to be a rock star with Colour Me Pop and the Thompson Twins – I saw them live at Hammersmith Palais in the 1980s. He now lives in Perth, Australia. He is a bestselling author of 39 books, selling over 4 million copies in 40 languages and has appeared on TV and Radio around the world. He has been a science editor of British GQ, and a columnist for the London Sunday Express. He moved to Australia in 2002 and was made an Honorary Research Fellow at Curtin University in 2005.
Michael White’s books include, Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science; Leonardo: The First Scientist; Tolkien: A Biography; and C. S. Lewis: The Boy Who Chronicled Narnia and a biography of Isaac Newton The Last Sorcerer. His first novel Equinox – an occult mystery thriller (with far better writing than Dan Brown’s) reached the Top Ten bestseller list in the UK and has been translated into 35 languages. His most recent non-fiction book is Galileo: Antichrist, a biography of the great scientist and religious radical. Novels following Equinox include: The Medici Secret, The Borgia Ring and The Art of Murder. A further novel features Galileo and Elizabeth I. White has also written novels under the pseudonyms Sam Fisher and Tom West and collaborated on a novel with James Patterson. He has been both short-listed and long-listed for the Aventis prize – Rivals short-listed in 2002 and The Fruits of War long-listed in 2006. He was also nominated for the Ned Kelly Prize for First Novel (for Equinox).
The book opens: “Venice. Ten Minutes Past Midnight, 10th of November, 1592” with two masked and black-cloaked figures lurking in the shadows of the alleyways by the canals, “their footfalls dampened by practice”. The taller of the two men, called here Saviour “could smell blood before he saw it”. The other man is here called Sin Eater. They are looking for a beautiful prostitute called Antoinette Perugino at Alfonzo’s bordello. The diabolic duo witness Antoinette being attacked by a tall man with a cane and being rescued by a squat burly man. She escapes from those two only to have her throat cut by Saviour and Sin Eater.
This is the first of a series of ritualistic murders that the eponymous Venetian Detective investigates. Serial killing leads to mass murder and an orgy of violence. The detective is Doctor Francesco Sagredo who has returned to Venice at the insistence of the current Doge, Pasquale Cicogna, after fifteen years of exile. Many tales have come back to Venice of Sagredo’s adventures and accomplishments, enough to make his rival Niccolo Celsi intensely jealous “The girls are calling him the new Marco Polo”.
The Doge’s son, the foul-mouthed and low-living Tomasso Cicogna, was Sagredo’s comrade in arms at the Battle of Lepanto and becomes his assistant in his new career as a detective, Lewis to Sagredo’s Morse. There are knowingly anachronistic nods towards modern detectives. Like Sherlock Holmes and Adrian Monk Sagredo, dismisses any thought that he has special powers, that he is a wizard: “It is simply deductive reasoning, looking at the evidence before your eyes and drawing logical conclusions that fit the observed facts”. Sagredo has a Gil Grissom-like tendency to say things like “The dead may indeed speak” and “Follow the evidence, the evidence does not lie”. His forensic techniques, as well as his medical practices – which deviate from the then standard prescription of leeches, mercury and horse excrement – lead some to fear that he is dabbling in the occult. He has learnt arcane lore from wise men in Nepal and alarms people when they witness him practising yoga and meditation.
Historical figures like Caravaggio, Hans Lippershey, Giordano Bruno and Galileo make guest appearances. There is also a knowing nod towards our 21st Century celebrity culture in the magazine published by Titus Rinilto.
The book has been optioned for a TV dramatization and there are many meaty roles for experienced actors – Maggie Smith would make a good Violetta Celsi – “corroded by her own excoriating vitriol”. Perhaps Hugh Jackman would make a good Sagredo. Trevor Peacock could be Carlo Perugino. Either Alan Rickman or Ian Richardson would have been perfect for Niccolo Celsi but sadly they have both left us. I would nominate Nick Dunning (Thomas Boleyn in The Tudors) for the role of Cardinal Severino. It is easy to imagine it a visual treat with the camera lingering on the Venetian buildings as the Morse dramatizations relished the ancient structures of Oxford. There will be plenty of sinister atmosphere in the canals and narrow passageways, as in Don’t Look Now. There will be a feast of colourful costumes, as in The Borgias and The Tudors.” “The gold leaf and the beggars, the smell of church incense and bilge, the gaudy ladies of high society…the winding lanes and the houses flat-faced and daubed in a beautiful cacophony of colour, the maze-like routes from one point to another, the market stalls and shops stinking of fish or blood-dripping poultry”. There is an orgy scene around page 197 which will go down well on the screen.
This book has inspired me to delve some more into the history of Venice. I read James (Jan) Morris’s book on Venice before my own brief visit to the city a long time ago and I am now inspired to read it again. The brilliant literary critic Tony Tanner has long been one of my intellectual heroes. His book Venice Desired examines Venice in the light of the influence it has had on diverse writers over the centuries. While researching my own travel piece on Venice, Venice and Death, I found much of interest in the work of ground-breaking historian Ferdinand Braudel.
Michael White’s book The Venetian Detective is a fine achievement, providing much intellectual stimulation and evocative prose alongside the thrills of the historical mystery.