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The Girl from Venice


The Girl from Venice

An Italian fisherman called Cenzo has survived the worst of World War II as it slowly grinds to an uneasy end. One night while tending his nets in the swampy lagoon where he plies his trade to support himself, his mother and his widowed sister-in-law, he retrieves the body of a young woman. He hastily hides her corpse from view under a tarp as a German gunboat pulls alongside his small vessel. When two SS officers board and demand to search the boat, he fears that her body will raise questions that could cost him his life. But when they tear the boat apart, she is gone. Were they looking for her or just harassing him? When she startlingly climbs aboard after they leave, Cenzo learns that her name is Giulia, the 18-year-old daughter of a wealthy Jewish Venetian businessman and his wife. She is the sole witness to the disappearance of her parents and a dozen other Jews who were taken by the SS from a mental hospital where they were held prisoner.

"It is a delight to enjoy the suspenseful drama and rich characters created by Martin Cruz Smith, who in his 70s continues to apply his deft touch to the written word."

The Italians have been whipsawed between supporting the Western Allies in the early years of the war. In order to survive, they faced siding with the Nazis as their Fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, joined forces with Adolf Hitler. Cenzo’s peaceful little village of Pellestrina remains intact due to its proximity to Venice, which has been spared from destruction because of its architecture and culture. The region remains occupied by the SS, Fascists and partisans, each as treacherous as the other as the Allies continue bombing raids on the mainland. German gunboats still patrol the nighttime waters, often casually shooting at fishermen, dogs, cats and shopkeepers --- simply for target practice or out of boredom.

THE GIRL FROM VENICE is a tale with a lighter touch, in ways that are almost romantic, even slightly comedic, in portraying its characters while imparting the absurdity of Italy’s state of affairs in the closing months of World War II.

When you spot a new novel from Martin Cruz Smith, you automatically think, “Wow, another Arkady Renko spy thriller!” Three years ago in the highly acclaimed TATIANA, Arkady himself concluded that he was getting a bit long in the tooth to be pursuing villains who more often than not were former colleagues. Fans have grown to love this cynical, existential spy whose misgivings about the KGB and the world in general have made him one of the most popular espionage heroes for three and a half decades. Who can forget GORKY PARK, the breakthrough spy thriller that landed on the silver screen, or the many sequels that collected awards and millions of fans?

World War II novels have fascinated readers for nearly three quarters of a century after its end. The Pulitzer Prize-winning ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr is a recent and far more serious approach to the horrors of the Holocaust, but the lighter touch of THE GIRL FROM VENICE does not entirely spare the reader of the greater truths of the evils of the Third Reich. Nor does it trivialize the heroism of the men and women who survived in any way they could. Cenzo’s brother Giorgio, an Italian film star who walks the fine line between collaborator, sycophant and playboy, is an example of one who did what he had to do to survive. Maria Paz, the wife of the Argentinian counsel, is another richly wretched yet almost sympathetic character whose artistic talents are put to work in forging passports in order to protect her ailing husband so Nazi officials could escape to South America.

This stand-alone novel does not lend itself to a sequel. It is a delight to enjoy the suspenseful drama and rich characters created by Martin Cruz Smith, who in his 70s continues to apply his deft touch to the written word.

Reviewed by Roz Shea on October 21, 2016

The Girl from Venice
by Martin Cruz Smith