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Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Venice with Philip Gwynne Jones

I write this on a dull August morning, where thankfully for once it isn't raining. You may be reading this anywhere in the world, such is the joy of the Internet, and therefore maybe in brilliant sunshine. Wherever you are reading it Philip Gwynne Jones is now taking you to one of the most beautiful cities in the world - Venice.

Radmila May has reviewed the first three books by Philip Gwynne Jones.

'The Venetian Game' 
Published by Constable. 2 March 2017.
ISBN:978-1-47212-397-8 (PB)

We first meet Nathan Sutherland, the British Honorary Consul for Venice in The Venetian Game, the first book in this series. We learn that an Honorary Consul is an official representative of the government of one state in the territory of another state. His (or her) job is to assist and protect the citizens of that country and to facilitate trust and friendship between the people of both countries. However, he is not an ambassador but will provide such assistance as he can with bureaucratic issues arising in either country although his powers are limited. Honorary consuls are not paid but are expected to be available one or two days a week, more if required. The advantage for Nathan is that, quite apart from the pleasure of helping people so far as he can, ie. not very much, and fending off the complaints of those  who ask for practical assistance which he is mostly unable to give, is that it is a more interesting alternative to his paid work of translating technical manuals, and means that he is asked to various cultural events and so forth and so meets a lot of people. And on a more personal level it takes his mind off the fact that his wife has refused to come out to Venice to be with him but has no intention of leaving her home in Edinburgh.
One day, Nathan, having had to tell a British family whose documents have been stolen that in order to get new passports they will have to go Milan, and to advise two stroppy British youths that he cannot get them off their drugs charges although he can refer them to an Italian lawyer, finds himself confronted by a Mr Montgomery who politely but insistently requests that Nathan put a small parcel - contents unspecified - in his safe. Equally politely and equally insistently Nathan refuses to do so.
And then, in an entirely unexpected fashion, the packet does come into Nathan’s hands and is revealed as containing a small book with beautiful illustrations which appear to be in the style of a famous Renaissance painter. Nathan is no art expert so he asks his friend, art restorer  Federica Ravagnon, and she suggests that they are by the Renaissance artist Giovanni Bellini. However, a noted expert in the field tells Nathan and Federica that the illustrations are in fact modern forgeries and of little or no value. But in that case why are others interested in acquiring the book by a variety of means including considerable violence? Things are getting really difficult for Nathan and he has to call on his friends – Dario, middle-aged fan of British rock music, police officer Vanni, Rumanian emigrant Gheorghe, and Federica herself, not to mention his ferocious cat Gramsci – for help before the climax comes in a crumbling canalside palazzo occupied by two elderly men inextricably linked to each other by ties of blood and mutual hatred.
'Vengeance in Venice' 
Published by Constable, 12 April 2018. 
ISBN:978-1-47212-400-5 (PB)

The setting for Vengeance in Venice, second in the series, also features art – not the art of the Renaissance, but modern art and the Venice Biennale, the immense exhibition held every two years of art, sculpture, and so forth from almost every country in the world. As British Honorary Consul Nathan gets an invitation to the English exhibit, a huge and amazing display of jagged broken glass which can only be seen from an upstairs gallery. The effect is beautiful but terrifying. Nathan has already met the artist, Paul Considine, and finds him nervous and timid, and very dependent on his agent, Lewis Fitzgerald, for moral support especially from art critics; although many critics admire his work, others are less so, especially Gordon Blake-Hoyt (known as GBH) whose reviews are venomous, particularly one just published in The Times. And it is GBH who falls to his death among the jagged shards of glass and is decapitated. It should be Nathan who informs GBH’s brother but when Fitzgerald offers to do so instead Nathan accepts gratefully – telling sad news to relations of the deceased is the most difficult part of Nathan’s duties.

Meanwhile, Paul Considine has disappeared and there is evidence that he is unstable and on medication and that the beheading of GBH was deliberate. There is a very helpful art journalist, one Franscesco Nicoledi, but is he quite what he seems to be? And is there really a threat to the life of Signor Scarpa, curator of the Biennale? And indeed to Nathan himself? And is the charming Welsh artist, Gwenant Price, in some way involved? Once again Nathan’s friends and allies – Federica, Dario, Gheorghe, even Gramsci – are drawn into the tangle.

'The Venetian Masquerade' 

Published by Constable, 4 April 2019
ISBN:978-1-47212-973-4 (PB)
The Venetian Masquerade, the third in this series, is based around yet another aspect of the culture that has made Venice outstanding among the world’s cities. That is music, in particular the music of Claudio Monteverdi who, although born in Cremona and then working in Mantua, spent the last part of his life in Venice dying there in 1643. He bridged the gap between the music of the Renaissance and that of the Baroque and not only wrote numerous madrigals and much religious music, the best known being his Vespers of 1610, but was a key figure in the development of early opera.

After his death his music was largely forgotten until the mid-twentieth century by which time, tragically, much of it was lost. But a substantial amount remains and is frequently performed, not just in Venice but all over the world. And it is to a performance at La Fenice, Venice’s great opera house, of one of Monteverdi’s three remaining operas, The Coronation of Nero and Poppaea, that Federica is taking Nathan on his birthday which is also the 450th birthday of the composer. The conductor is the famous Thomas Joshua Lockwood and it was expected that Poppaea would be sung by the legendary soprano, Isotta Baldan. However, she is indisposed and her part is taken by someone else. Nonetheless Nathan is enjoying it immensely. Until that is someone in the box opposite Nathan and Federica is stabbed. Apart from the dead man there had only been on other occupant of the box but Nathan had not seen him sufficiently clearly to be able to identify him although there had been something odd about his face – not quite human, Nathan thinks. However, the dead man, Matteo Zambon, was Italian, not British, and so no concern of Nathan’s. Except that he was carrying one of Nathan’s business cards and that makes Nathan curious. He discovers that Zambon was a professor at a musical academy and was looking into Monteverdi’s activities while in Venice, in particularly relating to an opera by the composer, The Rape of Proserpina, the libretto of which is extant but the entire score, apart from one trio for three voices, is lost. And it is while Nathan is digging all this out that he encounters both Isotta and Lockwood and they are most anxious to follow up his discoveries, particularly Lockwood who is obsessed by the hope of finding the lost score. They join forces with Nathan, but their search is complicated not only by the weather, which is cold and foggy with the likelihood of Aqua Alta (when the waters of the Venetian lagoon rise and flooding threatens), but by the enormous numbers of tourists who throng Venice for Carnevale, all in various forms of fancy dress and masks. And one of those, wearing an impenetrable beak-shaped mask, is stalking Nathan. But why? And who? And are Lockwood’s and Isotta’s motives as straightforward as they say they are?
All in all, these three titles are an excellent opening to a series that promises to entertain readers and also to inform them of Venice’s extraordinary history and culture. More titles are promised and I am looking forward to them. And the books are enhanced by highly attractive covers which illustrate the city’s varied beauty. Strongly recommended. 
Reviewer: Radmila May

Philip Gwynne Jones first came to Italy in 1994 when he spent some time working for the European Space Agency in Frascati, a job that proved to be less exciting than he had imagined. He spent twenty years in the IT industry before realising he was congenitally unsuited to it, and now works as a teacher, writer and translator. His first novel, The Venetian Game, was Waterstones Thriller of the Month for March 2018, and a Times Top 5 bestseller.  Vengeance in Venice, the second novel in the Nathan Sutherland series, was chosen as the Waterstones Welsh Book of the Month for April 2018. The third novel in the series, The Venetian Masquerade followed in April 2019. He lives in Venice with his wife Caroline. He enjoys cooking, art, classical music and opera; and can occasionally be seen and heard singing bass with Cantori Veneziani and the Ensemble Vocale di Venezia.

Radmila May was born in the U.S. but has lived in the U.K. since she was seven apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and still does occasional work for them including taking part in a substantial revision and updating of her late husband’s legal practitioners’ work on Criminal Evidence published late 2015. She has also contributed short stories with a distinctly criminal flavour to two of the Oxford Stories anthologies published by Oxpens Press – a third story is to be published shortly in another Oxford Stories anthology – and is now concentrating on her own writing.

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