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A Very Private Gentleman


A Very Private Gentleman

If Martin Booth's new novel A VERY PRIVATE GENTLEMAN is a
bestseller, expect Italy to become a highly popular tourist
destination. His narrator, an international criminal, spends the
novel alternately enticing you to join him high in the Italian
Apennines and cautiously warning you from trying to find him.

The novel's setting, a small, unnamed, rural Italian village, is
exquisite and exquisitely rendered. Booth takes time to describe
precisely and poetically the old wine shop run by a maniacal dwarf
and an obedient giant, the ancient apothecary whose floorboards
have absorbed centuries of spills, and the historic piazzas that
inspire nothing but nonchalance in the townspeople who visit them
every day.

Clarke, which is not the narrator's real name but an alias, poses
as a painter of butterflies, a Nabokovian occupation that allows
for such eccentricities as long absences, erratic behavior, and no
set schedule. So he often lounges and partakes of local delicacies
--- the wine, the home-smoked prosciutto, his two mistresses, all
of which he describes in tantalizing detail --- while he practices
his true calling. Clarke's real profession is much more sinister
than painting insects, although equally artistic. He doesn't reveal
it until almost 100 pages in, but hints, "I am the salesman of
death … I do not cause it. I merely arrange for its delivery.
I am death's booking-clerk, death's bellhop."

Despite his obsession with privacy and death, Clarke is an
endlessly entertaining narrator, and his insights into the
international underworld and the human condition are intriguing.
"Everyone is a terrorist," he observes. "Everyone carries a gun in
his heart. Most do not fire simply because they have no cause to

Booth's rendering of his narrator's voice is remarkable, both for
its consistency and for its intricacy. Not only does Clarke keep
his guard up through the novel's course, he also manages to convey
a great deal about his antihero without him realizing it. Clarke
admits his deception to the reader: "The names are changed, the
places changed, the people changed. There are a thousand Piazzas di
S. Teresa, ten thousand alleys that have no names … You will
not find me."

But Clarke seems unaware of his own self-deception: while he is
astute and witty, he can also occasionally be self-important and
even boorish in justifying his very private lifestyle. And he
studiously avoids cultivating any lasting human connections while
wondering how to make his mark on the world, never realizing that
to do one is to ensure the other. But his shortcomings become the
book's strengths, for as he contemplates life and death in Italy,
his flaws --- and his own ignorance of them --- reveal his
surprising depth and complex humanity.

Booth makes A VERY PRIVATE GENTLEMAN more than just a postcard from
Italy; the setting has direct thematic relevance to the story.
History is not just a recurring motif, but a character in itself,
an antagonist who constantly reminds Clarke of his encroaching
mortality. What better place to set such a face-off than in the
seat of Western history, the land where the Knights Templar roamed,
where abandoned castles and churches litter the terrain. Even the
view from his window captures eras past: "What I can see, with my
pair of compact pocket Yashica binoculars, are five thousand years
of history laid out before me as if it were a tapestry upon a
cathedral wall, an altar-cloth to the god of time spread over the

Ultimately, even the passage of time becomes a delicacy in A VERY
PRIVATE GENTLEMAN. With a watchmaker's precision, Booth has written
a suspenseful and intricate tale, one that is as inviting as it is

Reviewed by Stephen M. Deusner on January 24, 2011

A Very Private Gentleman
by Martin Booth

  • Publication Date: January 26, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
  • ISBN-10: 0312309082
  • ISBN-13: 9780312309084