THE GIRL FROM VENICE
By Martin Cruz Smith
Simon & Schuster, $27, 320 pages
Martin Cruz Smith is perhaps best known for his crime thriller series featuring Arkady Renko, a Russian militia investigator whose decency often made him run afoul of his Soviet masters.
Mr. Smith has also written “December 6,” a thriller about Imperial Japan on the eve of World War II.
“People ask why I took on the subject of an enemy like Japan on the brink of the bombing of Pearl Harbor? I was interested in knowing what was going through the minds of the Japanese at this turning point in our history. I wondered why on earth the Japanese started a war they had so little chance of winning. To me it was an act of desperation,” Mr. Smith explains on his website. “As a writer, I’m drawn to imagining the other side. In ‘Gorky Park,’ it was figuring out where Russians were coming from; in ‘Havana Bay,’ it was telling a Cuban story from the perspective of Cubans. You don’t sympathize, you empathize, which is a harder task.”
In the spring of 1945 the end is clearly near for the German occupation forces in Italy. Everyone knows the Americans are coming and the Germans are not happy with their Italian ally.
“A soldier’s brain was a simple thing. An ally fought by your side until the bitter end. He didn’t quit in the middle of the war or need to be rescued or welcome your adversary with roses and wine,” Mr. Smith writes. “Was Mussolini il Duce or clown? And what are the Italians besides turncoats?”
Innocenzo Vianello, known as Cenzo, is a simple fisherman from Pellestrina who becomes involved in intrigue when he fishes out of the lagoon the drowned body of a young, beautiful girl. He then discovers that a Nazi German gunboat is on the hunt for the girl.
Cenzo’s boat, the Fatima, is hailed by the gunboat and he is questioned by two German Wehrmacht SS officers in gray uniforms and jackboots. The younger officer, Lt. Hoff, is stern and haughty, while the older officer, Col. Steiner, appears worn-out. Cenzo is taken aboard the gunboat and the two officers ask him where exactly they were on the lagoon. Hoff’s gaze is described as the smeared aspect of a drunk’s.
“There was no avoiding the colonel’s gaze. One side of the man’s face was ruined and gray and his ear was cut to a stub, but his eyes were bright blue and the impression he gave was of a noble bust that had fallen and been chipped but was still imposing,” Mr. Smith writes.
The two officers are different types of soldiers with different views of Italians. Lt. Hoff is a true Nazi who believes that Col. Steiner is too forgiving of the Italians, the people who have betrayed them, while Col. Steiner knew and loved Italians, having spent summers in a family-owned Venetian villa in his youth.
Lt. Hoff boarded and inspected the fishing boat. Cenzo feared he would find the dead girl, but she was in fact alive and had slipped silently overboard. The German officer searched and trashed the fishing boat to the delight of the other Germans and then ordered Cenzo to sail away.
After the German gunboat departed, the Fatima rocked as the girl climbed aboard. The girl, Giulia, was born into a wealthy Jewish Venetian family and is on the run from the SS. Giulia explained to Cenzo that her influential family had been protected by Mussolini until an informer betrayed them to the Germans. Cenzo decided to hide her and later killed Lt. Hoff in her defense.
Cenzo, we learn, is not as simple as he puts on. He is a veteran of Mussolini’s war in Abyssinia (Ethiopia). He had piloted a reconnaissance plane, which he likened to being “the thumb of God” when they dropped rounds onto the Ethiopians. But he drew the line at dropping poison gas. He and his copilot could have been shot for refusing to follow orders, but instead they were ordered to bulldoze dead Ethiopians into mass graves and then given dishonorable discharges.
Cenzo and Giulia, despite their different backgrounds, fall in love and Cenzo arranges to hide her with a criminal friend. When the criminal ends up dead Cenzo pursues her as well as the informer. He encounters his war hero-turned movie star-turned fascist spokesman brother who had earlier stolen his wife, as well as Italian partisans, black marketeers, Fascist Blackshirts, and Col. Steiner, who has the dubious honor of defending against the oncoming American Army.
“The Girl From Venice” is a well-researched, well-written and entertaining thriller with an interesting historical backdrop.
• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage, terrorism and the military.
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