Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Michael White

Michael White’s The Venetian Detective


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 ScienceLeonardo: The First ScientistTolkien: 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 SecretThe 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.






More on Torture

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday March 3 2015.

Colman's Column3

President George W. Bush : Look, I’m going to say it one more time…. Maybe I can be more clear. The instructions went out to our people to adhere to law. That ought to comfort you. We’re a nation of law. We adhere to laws. We have laws on the books. You might look at these laws, and that might provide comfort for you.  —Sea Island, Georgia, June 10, 2004

There have been a number of reports on the use of torture by the USA. There was a heavily redacted 2004 report from the Office of Professional Responsibility in the Department of Justice. In 2007, the ICRC (Red Cross) published its Report on the Treatment of Fourteen “High Value Detainees” in CIA Custody. The ICRC said in the introduction, “that the consistency of the detailed allegations provided separately by each of the fourteen adds particular weight to the information provided.” There was a Senate Armed Services Committee report from 2008 about how the military used torture. There was a recent Senate report, or rather an executive summary, on CIA torture. There have been a dozen reports on torture practised at Abu Ghraib.

There is still no comprehensive public report on how the executive branch made decisions about torture.  Former US Vice-President Dick Cheney described the recent Senate report as “full of crap”. Cheney will have none of the argument that GW Bush was ignorant of the methods used by the CIA. “He was in fact an integral part of the program. He had to approve it before we went forward with it. I think he knew everything he needed to know and wanted to know about the program.” At one meeting, John Ashcroft, then attorney general, demanded of his colleagues, “Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly.”

These days we hear mealy-mouthed euphemisms, such as “alternative set of procedures”. The CIA, even after the damning Senate report, maintains that its “enhanced interrogation techniques” did not constitute torture. In the early days after 9/11, words went unminced. The CIA was already talking about torture before they even had a suspect on whom to practise.

The CIA did very little if any research about what kind of torture would work. There is no discussion springing from the need to torture particular people such as prisoners in hand who are unwilling to talk. Talk of torture itself started very soon after 9/11, when “high-value” detainees were not available.

When they did have someone to practise on, they went at it with a will. Abu Zubaydah, a thirty-one-year-old Palestinian from Gaza, was captured in March 2002 in Pakistan. Initially, he did provide some useful information  – that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks, and that José Padilla was plotting to become a  dirty bomber. However, that was down to the FBI not the CIA (although they claimed credit) and the information did not come from torture. Two experienced FBI interrogators who had fluent Arabic and deep knowledge about al-Qaeda used traditional “rapport-building” techniques.

The CIA had Abu Zubaydah in their clutches first but were too dumb to realise how important he was. Afterwards, they attributed too much importance to him, convincing themselves he was the third or fourth man in al-Qaeda. In reality, he was not even a member of al-Qaeda, merely  a travel agent for al-Qaeda.

FBI expert Ali Soufan objected strenuously to rank amateurs like former military psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen taking over the interrogation.  FBI people who knew what they were doing without torture pulled out of the questioning leaving it to amateurs using a “black site” in Thailand. The CIA were diverted by their misguided conviction that Abu Zubaydah was withholding information about attacks that would have killed thousands of people. They believed they had to torture him so that he would reveal information to justify their use of torture. Their use of torture was because he had not revealed any such information.

They deprived Abu Zubaydah  of sleep for 180 hours and waterboarded him eighty-three times, the last two sessions against the strenuous objections of the on-site interrogators, who judged correctly that he was completely compliant: he just had nothing more to reveal. He was mostly naked and cold, “sometimes with the air conditioning adjusted so that, one official said, he seemed to turn blue.” Zubaydah told the story himself. When loud music no longer played, “there was a constant loud hissing or crackling noise, which played twenty-four hours a day”. “I was taken out of my cell and one of the interrogators wrapped a towel around my neck, they then used it to swing me around and smash me repeatedly against the hard walls of the room. I was also repeatedly slapped in the face….”. They put him in a black box. “As it was not high enough even to sit upright, I had to crouch down. It was very difficult because of my wounds.” Eventually, a doctor stopped the torture. “I was told during this period that I was one of the first to receive these interrogation techniques, so no rules applied. It felt like they were experimenting and trying out techniques to be used later on other people.”

Testimony from others who were tortured supports this. A clear method emerges from these accounts, based on forced nudity, isolation, bombardment with noise and light, deprivation of sleep and food, and repeated beatings.

CIA Director George Tenet regularly told the highest government officials specific procedures to be used on specific detainees. Shortly after Abu Zubaydah was captured, according to ABC News, CIA officers “briefed high-level officials in the National Security Council’s Principals Committee,” including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, who “then signed off on the [interrogation] plan.”

The CIA justified the torture of Abu Zubaydah as a success because their brutal techniques allowed them to alleviate their anxiety about how much he really knew. They did not get any more information through torture but eventually convinced themselves that he had no more information.

Articles in the Washington Post and the New York Times revealed a secret world of black sites, prisons on military bases around the world, into which kidnapped people disappeared. “We don’t kick the [expletive] out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the [expletive] out of them”. Extraordinary rendition meant the detainee shackled at hands and feet was transported to the airport by road and loaded onto a plane. Earphones would be placed over his ears, through which music would sometimes be played. He would be blindfolded with a cloth tied around the head and black goggles. The journey times ranged from one hour to over thirty hours. The detainee  and had to urinate and defecate into a diaper.

The US corrupted the world with this programme. A report by the Open Society Justice Initiative  shows that 54 countries, including Ireland, helped to facilitate the CIA’s secret detention, rendition and interrogation programme. They participated in by hosting CIA prisons on their territories; detaining, interrogating, torturing, and abusing individuals; assisting in the capture and transport of detainees or permitting the use of domestic airspace and airports for secret flights transporting detainees.

The CIA’s former acting general counsel, John Rizzo, was involved in the programme from the start until 2009. He had a career at the CIA since the 1970s and was a main author of the 2001 Memorandum of Notification to the president that gave the CIA broad power to torture. Bush (pace Cheney’s recent comments), according to the intelligence committee report, was not briefed in detail on the actual techniques until 2006. The original authorization for the torture programme seems to have come from the Memorandum of Notification, a presidential document drafted by the CIA itself and signed by Bush on September 17, 2001.

An internal CIA draft letter to the attorney general sought a formal declaration that there would be no prosecutions of torturers.  When the Justice Department’s Criminal Division refused to provide immunity, the CIA lied to the Justice Department and found lawyers who would do their bidding. John Yoo, the author of the original torture memo, told the Office of Professional Responsibility that he would not have judged waterboarding legal if he had known the truth about how brutal it was.

In 1994, the US signed the Convention against Torture. This not only prohibits torture but also requires that it be investigated and punished. On his second day in office, Obama announced plans to close the Guantánamo detention facility within a year and to end immediately George W. Bush’s authorization of the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques”.  Although Obama once famously commented that “we tortured some folks” and that “I believe waterboarding was torture”, he has taken no action against the torturers. There are obvious avenues for investigation and possible prosecution, though the Obama administration shows no interest taking them.

This avoidance means that, practically speaking, torture remains an option for policymakers rather than a criminal offense. CIA director John Brennan has explicitly refused to rule out the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques under a future administration. The message to future presidents facing a serious security threat is that the prohibition of torture can be ignored without consequence. Abusive security forces from around the world are likely to take heart from that precedent as well.

Michael White was lambasted when he wrote in the Guardian: “it is also a day of redemption for the American system of imperfectly accountable government and that country’s many enemies should remember that as they hurl bricks and demand the prosecution of offenders”.

In his recent book Pay Any Price, investigative journalist James Risen described two of the most consequential aspects of American national security policy after September 11: the organized torture of al-Qaeda suspects in secret CIA prisons and the mass surveillance of communications by Americans carried out by the National Security Agency. There is a third consequence- attempts to muzzle the media. The Department of Justice prosecuted and imprisoned about half a dozen press sources for disclosing classified information  about mass surveillance and torture.

At his first inauguration, Barack Obama rejected “as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” Fine words. Risen writes:  “The rush to transform the United States from an open society to a walled fortress, prompted by the 9/11 attacks and propelled by billions of dollars spent on homeland security”, has left little room for serious public debate about “how best to balance security, civil liberties and freedom of movement. It is no longer much of a debate—security always wins.”

Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

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