Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Venice books - Two terrific historical thrillers by local author Gregory Dowling

The Four Horsemen by Gregory Dowling
(Venice, Italy) Since my Venice blog readers are passionate about La Serenissima and all her intrigues, and appreciate history, art and culture -- and are very smart -- I have a couple of book recommendations that are right up your calle. The books are also great for people who simply are looking for a good read.

Venice's own Gregory Dowling has begun a series of historical thrillers starring Alvise Marangon, a likeable cicerone, or tour guide, who becomes a reluctant spy for Missier Grande, the chief of the secret service police during the Venetian Republic. Set in the 18th century, the books are compelling and addictive, and will transport you into deep into the inner world of Venice with all its mysteries and conspiracies. In fact, they are so good that I had to completely reassess my impression of Gregory Dowling.

I first met Gregory years ago when we were both writing for the Time Out Venice guide book. I would see him every so often around town, and thought he was a very British, rather conservative professor at Ca' Foscari University. So when I recently read Ascension, his first novel in the series, (published in 2015 -- I'm late to the game) I was surprised to find his entertaining style of writing more American than British, until I remembered that his specialty is American literature. But that still didn't explain the riveting premise of the book, or account for the intricate plot.

Ascension by Gregory Dowling

Amazon's description of Ascension:

"Venice in 1749 - the city has lost its political and financial primacy but has become Europe's pleasure capital, famous for its gambling dens, its courtesans, its hectic carnival, its music, art and theatre - and the most highly organised secret service in Europe."

Alvise Marangon, the protagonist, was born in Venice but raised in England by his actress mother. Alvise has returned to Venice and works as a tour guide mostly for young wealthy Brits on the Grand Tour, together with his sidekick Bepi, a gondolier, wise as only a gondolier can be. Alvise speaks perfect Venetian and English, an ingenious touch that allows Gregory plenty of freedom to be creative with his dialogue and witty observations.

Because Alvise is a cicerone, we are also privy to historical insights, told in an engaging way -- far more fascinating than reading a dreary guide book about Venice. Most of the locations are real and vividly drawn, so you can easily imagine yourself traveling around the city, and if you get lost, there is a period map on the inside cover so you can find your bearings. And because Gregory Dowling has a First Class Honours Degree in English Language and Literature from Christ Church, Oxford, the books are supremely intelligent page-turners. It's a tasty combination that I found irresistible. 

Gregory Dowling -  The Four Horsemen book launch at Hotel Saturnia - Photo: Cat Bauer

When I started reading the second novel of the series, I thought I had solved the mystery as to how Gregory had managed to write such brilliant books. In the foreword to The Four Horsemen, Gregory writes:

"After the publication of Alvise Marangon's adventures in Ascension a number of people asked me where I had come across this story. The answer, as so often in Venice, is in the archives. ...The archives contain all the reports drawn up by Venice's legions of confidential agents and spies. ... However, not all the files and folders have been scrutinised. I found on one shelf a folder that had been pushed to the back, bound with a leather strap that seemed never to have been loosened..."

"Ah, ha!" I thought. "Gregory did not think up the plots at all, he translated them!" Even translating ancient Venetian documents into a riveting story for contemporary readers was a feat in itself -- but the foreword was an explanation as to how this staid British professor had suddenly flipped and become so cool. However, I still had many questions: how did he manage to create such a likeable protagonist as Alvise Marangon from those dusty documents? And all those details? Just the amount of research he put into the books was boggling. I wanted to speak to Gregory to learn how he did it.

Amazon's description of The Four Horsemen:

"After reluctant spy Alvise Marangon is arrested in a tavern brawl, he is summoned to meet the Missier Grande, head of the city's powerful secret service. Rather than being expelled from the city, he is coerced into a top-secret investigation of the mysterious death of one of the service's agents and the existence of a mysterious secret society. Formed by four rakish noblemen, it is known as the Four Horsemen and dates back to the Ottoman Empire. As Alvise delves into the case, he finds all the hallmarks of assassination and corruption, and is soon profoundly out of his depth and on the run."

Luckily, in true Venetian synchronicity, Gregory and I both happened to attend Rosella Mammoli Zorzi's book launch of Wonder and Irony, a guide book of Palazzo Ducale told through the eyes of Henry James (Wonder) and Mark Twain (Irony) that was convened inside the Doge's private chapel. We entered through the grand Porta della Carta at about the same time. I dashed up to Gregory. "I just read your books. I borrowed them from (a mutual friend). I love them! I think they are brilliant! But, in the foreword of The Four Horsemen, you said you found documents in the Archives -- "

Gregory said, "Oh, I made that up."

I was astonished. "You invented the foreword, too? You mean you actually invented the plots, and the characters, and then you invented the foreword to explain it all? That is so clever!"

Gregory was grateful for the compliment, but also excited about going inside the Doge's private chapel, which had been long out of the public eye and recently restored. "Yes. Thank you! Isn't this great?" 

Doge's private chapel - Rosella Zorzi's book launch - Photo: Cat Bauer
I am revealing his secret, but I think it should be revealed because it underlines how very talented Gregory Dowling is. It seems I had the wrong impression of him. He's got that Oxford mind, but years of living in Venice have made him Venetian, capable of creating such a likeable narrator as Alvise Marangon, a narrator out of his depth yet still able to conquer whatever Venetian intrigues come his way. There are so many books set in Venice that just scrape the surface, written by people who only know the city superficially. Gregory Dowling's books are a genuine bridge between the inner sanctum of Venice and the outside world. I hope they will soon be translated into Italian so more Venetians can enjoy them, too. 

I cannot wait for the next Alvise Marangon historical thriller.

"Dowling teaches American literature at a university in Venice. It shows. Ascension blends a laconic, amused style informed by American detective literature with a profound knowledge of Venetian geography and history. Stylish, clever and gripping." The Times

"Alvise is a terrific character, the murder mystery is absorbingly ingenious and, if you are a sucker for Venice, the sights, sounds and smells of its streets and canals ooze up from the page." Daily Mail 

"Wonderful...I loved being transported to my favourite time in my favourite city." Andrea di Robilant

"A special thriller set in the Venetian past -- its colours and intrigues so vividly described." Francesco da Mosto

"A wonderful page-turner with a fabulous cast of characters." Historical Novels Society

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

1 comment:

  1. Gregory Dowling's books are a genuine bridge between the inner sanctum of Venice and the outside world.