Martin Cruz Smith is best known for the eight novels featuring Moscow police investigator Arkady Renko. I’ve read and admired them all. (You can find reviews of three of those novels here, here, and here.) However, before creating the character of Arkady Renko in 1981, Cruz had written 17 previous works of fiction, all of them mysteries and nearly all under pseudonyms. His latest book, The Girl From Venice, appears to be a more serious undertaking. It’s a standalone novel set in Venice in the closing weeks of World War II. Though sometimes described as a thriller, it’s billed as a love story. I found it disappointing.
The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith
@@@ (3 out of 5)
A fisherman who’s more than a fisherman
When we first meet Vincenzo (“Cenzo”) Vianello, we’re led to believe that he’s a simple fisherman who lives in a village just outside Venice. He’s nothing of the sort, however. He’s a painter whose work is admired locally, and his older brother, Giorgio, is a war hero and one of Italy’s most famous film stars. Cenzo so closely resembles Giorgio that he’s able to pass for him.
The SS and the extermination of Jews in Venice
The Girl From Venice is Giulia Silber. As the novel opens, Cenzo discovers her floating in a lagoon. She looks dead but is simply faking it. When a German patrol boat stops Cenzo’s boat for an inspection, she somehow manages to hide undetected. But a drunk SS officer goes on a rampage on the boat, inadvertently threatening her life. Cenzo kills him to save her. It turns out that Giulia is Jewish. She was the only one to escape from the mental hospital where she, her family, and other wealthy Venice Jews had been hiding out for several years. Even though Germany has clearly lost the war, and the end is no more than a few weeks away, the SS has mounted a search to find and kill Giulia.
Nazi generals, movie stars, and a “Swiss” film director
In the unfolding action, we meet Nazi generals who want to sue for peace, a “Swiss” film director, Giorgio and one of the actresses he’s sleeping with, the Argentine consul and his wife, and a bartender in Cenzo’s village who is connected to the partisans. At the center of the story is Cenzo’s courageous effort to move Giulia out of harm’s way toward the American lines. Naturally, along the way, the two fall in love despite the disparity in their ages: she’s 18, he’s 28.
Others have written better novels along these lines
Other American authors have covered similar territory and written better stories along these lines. Philip Kerr, Alan Furst, and Joseph Kanon, in particular, have all dug deeply into the reality of Europe under the Nazis and produced thrillers that are engrossing, grounded in historical fact, suspenseful, and entertaining. The Girl From Venice comes up short on this yardstick.
For further reading
If you enjoy reading history in fictional form, check out 20 most enlightening historical novels (plus dozens of runners-up). And if you’re looking for exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here (plus 100 others).
You might also be interested in Top 7 great popular novels reviewed on this site.
If your taste runs more to genre fiction, check out:
- 20 excellent standalone mysteries and thrillers;
- My 20 favorite espionage novels; or
- Great sci-fi novels reviewed: my top 10.
My post 19 nonfiction books that illuminate the World War II era may also interest you.