'A Beautiful Crime' review: Masterful tale of deception in Venice
A BEAUTIFUL CRIME by Christopher Bollen (Harper Collins, 400 pp., $27.99)
Patricia Highsmith’s dark spirit hovers over much of Christopher Bollen’s “A Beautiful Crime.” Highsmith, who wrote “Strangers on a Train” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” was a master crafter of suspense, intrigue and the machinations of homicidal sociopaths. After “Lightning People,” “Orient” and “The Destroyers,” Bollen has more than earned the comparisons. His characters are as meticulously crafted as Highsmith’s, his plots as thrillingly constructed, and his meditations on loneliness and alienation as compassionately rendered.
Without giving away too many secrets and surprises, “A Beautiful Crime” follows Nick Brink and his boyfriend, Clay Guillory, as they travel from New York City to Venice. In Italy, the young lovers dodge their volatile pasts while selling counterfeit art to Richard Forsythe West, a brassy, clueless American living off his savings in a stately palazzo. Things get murkier as Nick and Clay’s intelligence and beguilement prove a poor match for the situation they’ve created.
By making his gay protagonists criminals (of varying degree), Bollen does something bold, a gamble that Highsmith — herself a lesbian — had wagered: plucking gay characters out of the ghettos of victimhood or sainthood and allowing them to be morally ambiguous. And still, we root for their success.
What makes “A Beautiful Crime” work so well is how much empathy Bollen affords his characters. They do unspeakable things, but they suffer. They manipulate, steal and lie, but they are also fearful and hope for understanding. Bollen doesn’t let them off the hook. He is critical of them and makes them pay for their undeniably selfish deeds. No matter, we continue to care about them. As the story gets darker, Bollen holds the reader’s hand, leading us deeper into the alleyways and canals of the mythic city in which he sets his inventions loose. Bollen captures Venice in all its decadence, art-rich history and ineluctable decay.
Most disarming is how smoothly Bollen tells his story. His language is simultaneously inviting and forbidding — accessible, playful, and then suddenly, shockingly brilliant. His characters, despite their cruelty and barbarism, are developed enough to feel real, honest and even (gasp) likable.
Bollen also offers a refreshingly frank assessment of interracial romance within the gay community, something rare in literature. Clay is black and from the Bronx, and Bollen spends sufficient time exploring his childhood and community, while commenting on the implicit — and sometimes overt — racism endemic within LGBTQ circles. His portrait of Clay is perhaps the most complex and nuanced of all his characters. “The deep, jarring jumble is where Clay lived.”
“A Beautiful Crime” is intricately plotted and elegantly structured. It is also sincere and deep. Clay and Nick truly love each other, and their bond is tested and proved through all they endure.
Inherent within the novel are matters of class and classism. The risky charades orchestrated by the young lovers are products of disadvantage, and envy for those who have more. Much more. Upward social mobility in this materialistic milieu may only be achieved through fabricated art, exploitation, and murder. After all, destitution demands cunning, or as Bollen himself puts it, “The world had endless, ingenious ways of smashing you to pieces” and “kindness was unrealistic and probably dangerous and certainly insane.”