The first and Last Time I Saw Venice

Ron Kenner, Editor, Ruins of Grandeur

LOS ANGELES.  June 12, 2009 — I have no problem saying Ruins of Grandeur is an outstanding novel, and the recent IPPY Award for Mystery/Suspense/Thriller novel category solidifies this view. Every judge has his own reasons for bestowing recognition and acclaim. As the editor of Ruins of Grandeur, enjoying a strong familiarity with the work, I can think of a number of Donald Geddes' talents that warrant appreciation, but a few in particular stand out. My own sense is that one of the major reasons for what many regard nowadays as a "crisis of literature," the decline in reading by all too many, is because, as simple as it sounds — unlike with Ruins of Grandeur — too few readers enjoy spending time with the protagonist, dysfunctional or not. That's another way of saying that many novels aren't as much fun as they used to be, thanks — actually no thanks — usually to the leading character.

Geddes' high society art sleuth Peter Grant is, simply put, a fun character. Intelligent, thoughtful but with no ax to grind, no agenda to promote except for his campaign to reignite his lost romance with his separated wife. Not least, for those of us who might regard protagonists under thirty as 'young adult' literature, it’s a good read spending time with an on-the-loose bon vivant who’s been around for a while, who knows his way around and who — though elegant, erudite, witty and a bit of a "ladies' man" — is vulnerable, still in love with his wife, and not too aloof to share his world with us.

I won't easily forgive Geddes for not having protagonist Peter take us on a brief guided art tour (not even when his novel takes us right by the Grand Canal) — to see the small Peggy Guggenheim museum and modern art collection, a kind of brief respite (with a Pablo Picasso here and a Salvador Dali there) from an ancient city loaded with Tintoretto, Titian and Church art. But art sleuth Peter — and author Geddes, more interested in entertaining the reader than in art pontifications — does take us into Harry's Bar; and I recall once visiting another Harry's Bar and Hemingway hangout in Madrid. And Ruins of Grandeur, with its special appreciation of architecture and the ornate, does at least show both a decent respect and a credible irreverence to the Church. The novel also includes an adequate amount of debauchery to credibly capture the tainted Venice. And, as merely one example, author Geddes' insightful sleuth does at least make us feel — as few authors might, and far beyond what you'd find in any tourist guides — the real qualities of the Grand Canal:

"Behind the opulent facades of the Grand Canal's architecture my mind recalls what my eyes cannot see, the dark labyrinth of narrow passageways and sunny campos with their unique and mysterious-looking wells upon which stray cats snooze on sun-drenched lids. Here and there ancient brick reveals itself, exposed by crumbling stucco. Gray-haired grandmothers peer from open windows, their faces framed by peeling shutters while, inside, TV sets blare incessantly. Above the narrow passageways flap the pigeons and the ubiquitous laundry. Strung out to dry, clothing and under garments undulate suggestively in the breeze. And everywhere there are flowers; white roses cascade over brick walls, geraniums thrust brazen pink and red blossoms skyward from earthen pots, purple wisteria dangles in pungent profusion like a tangled arbor lush with grapes. Already I detect or perhaps just imagine the familiar aromas – sewage, floral attar, fresh bread, dead fish, garlic, mildew and Gorgonzola – smells all tinged with salt air from vast greenish-colored lagoons."

I'm reminded here a little of Hemingway who, in his own descriptions at least, brings us away from generalities and back to our real concrete senses, more alive somehow as we see, feel, hear, touch, smell…. As for assorted potent smells, of course, nowhere can you find a more awesome depiction of olfactory impact than in the opening pages of the crime novel Perfume by Patrick Suskind. John Updike is a true master of the gesture, like Tolstoy, who shows us a world in the way a character holds a teacup. Among my favorite authors, when it comes to metaphors, I'm reminded of the nonfiction writer John McPhee, who also writes with a special clarity, and not least, the talented Arundhati Roy. In Roy’s first novel, The God of Small Things, she writes, for example, "The old house on the hill wore its steep gabled roof pulled over its ears like a low hat." Wow.

With his own special style and potent insight, Geddes, a remarkable character in his own right, provides not only urbane, charming company in Venetia but poignantly depicts the likes of the ancient city's Grand Canal and transports us to another world; he writes with a fast-paced style, smooth but with exactly as much stench as we need to temper an art connoisseur's appreciation of crumbling art and beauty; a scenario carefully mixed and seasoned to capture the curious magic of Venice; a pleasant change, perhaps, from our own brand of crumbling infrastructure in our more modern landscape. And talking about fun, who could not enjoy, nowadays, a pleasant reprieve, reading fiction, about corruption in high places.

Geddes' Ruins of Grandeur is one of my favorite mysteries in part because (my wife) Mary and I have travelled in well over a dozen countries in Western and Eastern Europe (even travelled on the storied Orient Express) yet over a course of decades I never managed a visit – until editing Donald's book with its well-penned depictions of this saintly and hellish fabled city. So far Ruins of Grandeur serves as the first and last time I saw Venice. I've been to Paris before, and look forward to revisiting it before long in another of Donald Geddes' Peter Grant mystery chronicles.

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