The Last Gondola
by Edward Sklepowich
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur
357 pages, 2003
Murder Is Academic
Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson
Charm is what floats The Last Gondola from its languid opening in an elegant Venetian café to its fiery denouement in the haunted palazzo of a secretive American expatriate.
Edward Sklepowich, the author now of seven novels (beginning with 1990's Death in a Serene City) featuring literary biographer and sometimes-investigator Urbino McIntyre, is among the most polished contributors to the crime fiction subgenre of academic mysteries. Populated by upper-class characters and replete with erudite references, these stories frequently tend toward the stylized (as exemplified by Edmund Crispin's Gervase Fen series, set at Oxford, or Jane Langton's mysteries involving Harvard professors). The Last Gondola often transcends its subgenre on the strength of its fine writing and contemporary, international tone. Sklepowich, who has lived and taught for many years in Mediterranean countries, makes subtle and effective use of the Venetian setting he obviously knows well. While the story is not as striking as Michael Dibdin's Dead Lagoon or Shariann Lewitt's Interface Masque, The Last Gondola provides similarly satisfying insights into the culture of historic Venice.
As The Last Gondola begins, McIntyre is attempting to write a biography of Samuel Possle, the last of the American expatriates and European jet-setters who surrounded heiress and arts patron Peggy Guggenheim in Venice during the 1960s. The 90-year-old Possle, once supposedly at work on his own book chronicling his hedonistic heyday, now lives as a recluse, protected by a mute manservant. McIntyre is determined to interview the frail Possle before it's too late, but thus far all of his interview requests have been ignored. Refusing to be deterred, he's taken to frequenting the narrow streets near Possle's home, the Ca' (short for casa) Pozza, in search of inspiration. It's there, in the early hours of one morning, that he spots a figure in the palazzo holding up what appears to be a severed head, and then hears a woman's mad laughter and sobbing from a darkened house that adjoins the Ca' Pozza. But the figure vanishes, the sobbing stops, and the shaken McIntyre is left to walk home through the deserted cobblestone alleys, musing that "There were too many places for someone to be hiding, too many slippery stones that could have you falling into the canal, and too little reassurance that anyone was inside the closed old houses to come to your aid." Does he hear someone following him, or is it just nerves or his imagination?
McIntyre is all too aware that his common sense is being overshadowed by a recurrent dream, one that's been tormenting him ever since he embarked on the Possle biography. In this vision, he sees a young Possle sitting with a veiled woman in a room hung with tapestries. Presently, McIntyre's friend and mentor, the Contessa da Capo-Zendrini, approaches the pair, only to have the room burst into flames around her.
Sklepowich's protagonist would never think to reveal this disturbing fantasy to the Contessa, lest it upset her. A wealthy widow in her early 60s, who, like McIntyre, is an American currently living in Venice, she's already distracted by concerns of her own: items of her clothing and jewelry have been disappearing from her household. These articles are of little actual value, and she's not even sure if they are being stolen, or merely mislaid. The Contessa confides to McIntyre that her real concern here is she may be losing her mind, and asks him to exercise his sleuthing skills in order to find out what's happening to her possessions.
When McIntyre finally locates one of the Contessa's missing items near the Ca' Pozza itself, it echoes the connection between his friend and the eccentric Possle that was foreshadowed by his dream. As he continues his inquiry, McIntyre uncovers a series of suspicious accidents, fires and deaths associated with Possle's household, including the appearance and disappearance of a sheaf of poems thought to be the work of Lord Byron. Not surprisingly, McIntyre's investigative style cleaves to the genteel academic mystery tradition: He interviews elderly artists and academicians who knew the young Possle, and he combs through documents in the library of an Armenian monastery in Venice. He receives little help from the Contessa's domestic staff or even from his own gondolier, Gildo: They obviously distrust the upper class they serve.
McIntyre flirts with the underworld only when he seeks help from Gildo's uncle, the ex-priest Demetrio Emo, who's now a locksmith and has handled keys to both the Contessa's palazzo and the Ca' Pozza. Defrocked for his notorious seductions of the women of his parish, Emo is a surly, ominous figure who knows the city's history and secrets.
"There was something fascinating in seeing so large a man involved with objects as small and slim and secretive as keys," McIntyre reflects on his visit to the locksmith's busy shop. To the detective's dismay, Emo knows McIntyre has been keeping watch on the Ca' Pozza. But the contemptuous locksmith inadvertently reveals information that Gildo has obviously concealed: Gildo's best friend died recently in a mysterious fall from the roof of the building next door to the Ca' Pozza.
The plot of The Last Gondola is undistinguished, moving through a succession of interviews with major and minor characters, most of whom are clearly lying or are avoiding telling the truth. Sklepowich enlivens his story by weaving themes of madness and eccentricity into it with a skilled hand, presenting the reader with clues as subtle and intriguing as the voices and shapes adrift in the fog-shrouded streets of Venice. McIntyre himself is as mysterious as any of the characters he investigates:
He peered down at the black waters of the canal. Scraps of vegetables drifted in the direction of the Grand Canal. Mesmerized by their slow motion, he watched them until they passed from view under the bridge. He was now staring at the faint, masklike reflection of his face.
In a refreshing departure from so many confessional protagonists in contemporary crime fiction, Edward Sklepowich provides the reader with only tantalizing glimpses of McIntyre's background. Why is he, like Possle, somewhat reclusive? What was his relationship with the still-glamorous Contessa, that she bought him a priceless private gondola? Is he romantically involved with his friend Habib Laroussi, an acclaimed Moroccan artist who appears only at the end of the book? I suspect that a fascination with McIntyre--as well as the simple pleasure of reading Sklepowich's thoughtful prose--is what keeps readers coming back to this series. | August 2003
Karen G. Anderson is a contributing editor of January Magazine.